Senior American officials fear that opening a U.S. interests section in Tehran could strengthen President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and help him win the presidential elections next June. Continuing controversy over whether or not to open a Tehran mission means the final decision will rest with the incoming Barack Obama administration. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns met a group of Israeli diplomats in Washington last week and told them of the argument over the interests section. Burns, who is likely to stay in his post in the Obama administration, is coordinating the changeover with Obama's people in the State Department.

Burns said the strategy behind opening an American interests section in Tehran, known as "Poisoned Carrot," would enable the U.S. to make direct contact with the Iranian people and conduct a dialog with the moderate reformist public over the head of the radical regime.

However, senior Washington officials believe that the move would signal an American weakness vis-a-vis Iran and even help Ahmadinejad win the elections by enabling him to claim that despite the sanctions he has not given in, while the U.S. "folded."

"The Americans have been told by too many officials the world over that opening an interests section in Tehran, as the last move of an outgoing administration, is not a good idea," a senior Jerusalem source said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited Israel some two weeks ago, told Olmert, Barak and Livni that the decision on this issue would be passed on to the next administration. Burns told the Israeli diplomats that he was doubted it would be possible to impose more massive sanctions on Iran. Following the crisis in Georgia and the tension it caused between the United States and Russia, it would be very difficult to agree on a significant fourth round of sanctions in the Security Council, he said.

Burns, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia until a few months ago, said that any progress vis-a-vis Iran would be possible only with Moscow's cooperation.