by Jasmin Ramsey
Today, while Iran and six world powers resumed talks over a comprehensive nuclear deal in Vienna, here in Washington the possibility of an US diplomatic presence in Tehran was discussed at a prominent think tank. Two years ago a lede like that would have made you look twice, but since the Rouhani government took power in June 2013 and an interim nuclear deal was reached between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia plus Germany) on November 24, this seems more possible than ever.
According to Ramin Asgard, a former US foreign service officer who worked on a range of Iran-related issues during his recent 16-year career at the State Department, re-establishing an official US presence in Iran would benefit US national security as well as US citizens. He explains why in a new report commissioned by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA), which conducts essential polling of Iranian-Americans as well as related advocacy and outreach.
Asgard essentially argues that due to the continued absence of a US diplomatic presence in Iran, for the last 35 years the US’ Iran policy has been informed largely by intelligence, governments, think tanks and other third-hand information rather than the reality on the ground. This has resulted in a “lack of a locus of policy discipline in America’s Iran policy, directly decreasing America’s ability to advance its foreign policy goals.” But Asgard points out that some of the benefits of a US diplomatic presence in Iran include the ability to directly engage with the Iranian government on important US national security issues and the possibility of a US Public Affairs Section in Tehran, which could engage local media in explaining US policy positions as well as support US-Iran academic and cultural exchanges.
Of course, just this month millions of Iranians, according to the Iranian government, were celebrating the 35th anniversary of their 1979 Revolution, which kicked off with the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by Iranian students — so there would need to be assurances that this wouldn’t happen again, along with several other important agreements. As for Iranian opposition to this venture, Asgard responds that this “wouldn’t be a unilateral measure” and that the Iranian government also has interests in this project, including an upgraded Iranian diplomatic presence in the US (at present, Iranian officials at their UN headquarters in New York are limited to travel within a 25-mile radius of the building).
To be sure, Asgard addresses the greatest cons of his proposal in his report, including the argument that re-establishing an US official presence in Iran betrays the opposition — in response he asks, has the US-Iran cold war actually led to the improvement of Iranian human rights? Ultimately, the point that more than 3 decades of hostility between the two countries has actually advanced destructive forces for many Iranians and US interests is undeniable, but the question remains: is re-establishing an official US presence in Iran even possible?
Going beyond expected US and Iranian domestic opposition, according to John Limbert, an academic and former US hostage in Iran, while Asgard’s proposal is ideal, it’s too soon to pursue. He argued today on the panel he shared with Asgard at the Atlantic Council, which hosted the release of PAAIA’s report, that US diplomats could be used as “pawns” if something goes wrong between the US and Iran as it often has at critical stages in their collective history. At the same time, Limbert also noted that US engagement with Iran “shouldn’t be held hostage” to progress on the nuclear issue.
Perhaps most interestingly, Asgard repeatedly stated that establishing an official US presence in Iran doesn’t have to involve rapprochement — the establishment of US diplomatic relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union support that notion — and that could also help reassure Iranian hardliners. Still, it does make the prospect of better US-Iran relations seem all the more possible, which is why this discussion will no doubt continue — as a debate — especially as Iran and world powers try to inch towards that final nuclear deal…
Photo: The US embassy compound in Tehran, known as the “den of spies” in Iran, which has been out of US control since its seizure by Iranian students in 1979.