Bush to seek diplomatic presence in Iran

The Bush administration will announce in mid-November, after the presidential election, that it intends to establish the first U.S. diplomatic presence in Iran since the 1979-81 hostage crisis, according to senior Bush administration officials.

The proposal for an “interests section,” which falls short of a full U.S. Embassy, has been conveyed in private diplomatic messages to Iran, and a search is under way to choose the American diplomat who would head the post, the officials said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last month that he would consider the idea, which first surfaced over the summer.

The U.S. had close ties to Iran’s late shah, who was overthrown in 1979. Iran’s ruling circles, however, are suspicious of U.S. attempts to expand its influence in the country.

Earlier this month, an Iranian official said that Iran would refuse to allow a U.S.-based nonprofit group, the American-Iranian Council, to operate there even after it received a Treasury Department license to do so.

Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, has criticized the Bush administration’s penchant for not talking to U.S. enemies, and has indicated that he would hold direct talks, even with Ahmadinejad.

Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has ridiculed Obama and his foreign policy as naive.

Yet in his waning days in office, President Bush has authorized a more direct approach to Iran, sending Undersecretary of State William Burns to participate in six-nation nuclear talks with Iranian representatives in Geneva in July.

Among other things, the U.S. diplomats in Tehran would facilitate cultural exchanges; issue visas for Iranians to travel to the U.S.; and engage in public diplomacy to present a more charitable view of the U.S.

The U.S. and Iran don’t have formal diplomatic relations, which were broken by President Carter in April 1980, following the November 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian students.

U.S. interests in Iran are looked after by the Swiss. Iran has a small interests section in Washington under Pakistan’s embassy, but it doesn’t include any Iranian diplomats.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in New York in July that Iran would insist on a quid pro quo for permitting a U.S. interests section: approval of its standing request for direct flights between Tehran and New York.

While some senior officials said Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice haven’t made a final decision, they and others indicated that the mid-November announcement is a near-certainty.