U.S. may open new diplomatic outpost in Iran

The Bush administration is considering setting up a diplomatic outpost in Iran in what would mark a dramatic official U.S. return to the country nearly 30 years after the American Embassy was overrun and the two nations severed relations.

Even as it threatens the Iranian regime with sanctions and possible military action over its nuclear program, the administration is floating the idea of opening a U.S. interests section in Tehran similar to the one the State Department runs in Havana, diplomatic and political officials said Monday.

Like the one in Cuba, an interest section, or de facto embassy, in the Iranian capital would give the U.S. a presence on the ground through which it can communicate directly with students, dissidents and others without endorsing the government, one official said.

It would process visa applications and serve as a center for American cultural outreach to locals, the officials said.

Now, the U.S. has no diplomatic presence in Iran and relies on the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to serve as its “protecting power.” The Swiss now pass messages to the Iranian foreign ministry on Washington's behalf and handle the affairs U.S. citizens in the country.

The idea of a separate U.S. flag office was born in part out of concern about Switzerland's decision earlier this year to sign a long-term gas contract with Iran.

The U.S. now has a small office in the Gulf state of Dubai that handles routine visa matters for Iranians, but officials say it is not easily accessible and unable to do the work that an interests section could do.

The interests section concept is an old idea now being revisited by a very small group of diplomats and political officials at the State Department, with the blessing of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.