March 19, 2009

Iran review preview…

dennis-rossThe Obama administration’s Iran policy review, headed up by Amb. Dennis Ross, is scheduled to be completed by the end of next week.  From media accounts and the Beltway rumor mill, we have been given a glimpse into what might come out of it.
1. As Amb. James Dobbins has long advocated, the administration is likely to drop the prohibition on low-level diplomatic contact with Iran.  This is basically a no-brainer for Obama.  But it’s interesting such a common-sense move is likely to have such an enormous long-term impact on America’s knowledge of and familiarity with Iran–something that I think we can all agree has been lacking for decades.
For too long, the rules against American diplomats talking to their Iranian counterparts have been unreasonably strict.  When I served in the US Embassy in Muscat, Oman–only a few doors down from the Iranian Embassy–my superiors made it painfully clear from the outset that under no circumstances was I to interact with Iranian diplomats.  It’s exactly that type of policy that has made Iran such a black hole for so many of our foreign service members.
2. As we reported earlier, it seems that Obama’s first major gesture toward Iran will involve sending a letter to Supreme Leader Khamenei.  In speaking with a friend of mine who just returned from Iran, I was told that many Iranians are personally insulted by Obama’s refusal to respond to Ahmadinejad’s letter after last November’s election.  Perhaps Obama can use this opportunity to acknowledge Iran’s previous attempts to reach out to the US, and to “hit the reset button” in bilateral relations.
3. Though we’ve been holding out hope for months that Obama would open a diplomatic outpost in Iran, currently all plans for a US interests section in Iran are “off the table.”  According to the BBC, administration officials feared that

an “interests section” could be seen by Iranians as a nest of spies, and might become a target for demonstrators. Iranians may be reluctant to go inside for fear of being harassed by the authorities.

It is unclear whether the administration will even publicize the conclusions of its policy review, so the next few weeks may be a crash course in deciphering anonymous sources and leaks in media accounts.  Stay tuned, it should be exciting.

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