Reopen the U.S. Embassy in Tehran
The embassy could house a strong public diplomacy section to explain to the Iranian people how their government acts against their interests.
On the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill reaffirming its long-standing desire to see President George W. Bush move the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the State of Israel's natural capital. The president ignored the request, but he would be well-advised to reconsider his stance. Such a move could make for smart diplomacy if it is coupled with a clear statement that he also wants the U.S. Consulate General in East Jerusalem to become the U.S. embassy to a future Palestinian state, which will be established through a negotiated peace agreement requiring both sides to make concessions on the status of Jerusalem, among other issues.
This is not the only Middle Eastern arena in which the American president would be well-advised to revisit the role and placement of his country's diplomatic facilities. If properly formulated, a unilateral announcement that America intends to reopen an embassy in Tehran could be an innovative and proactive step toward pacifying Iran.
When it comes to Tehran, America is effectively blind. For example, U.S. analysts have had inordinate difficulty tracking the effects of sanctions on prices of consumer prices in Iran without physical access to the bazaar. Instituting an Iran Regional Presence Office at the U.S. consulate in Dubai in 2006 was an important step toward training Farsi-speakers and Iran-watchers in the foreign service corps, but there is still no substitute for having diplomats in the country itself.
If the United States were to relaunch the embassy in Tehran, it could bring in talented economic analysts and political officers to track the currents of discontent. The embassy could house a strong public diplomacy section to explain to the Iranian people how their government acts against their interests, and consular officers could boost exchange programs to empower moderates who call for democratic change.
Ever since Iranian vigilantes took 52 American diplomats hostage in 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran has remained suspended because efforts to reconstitute it have always been part of comprehensive diplomatic initiatives that have been rejected by Iranian hard-liners. However, President Bush could bypass these hard-liners with a prime-time speech announcing his intention to reopen the embassy as a stand-alone gesture of good will to the Iranian people.
Although, of late, the government of Iran has shown a penchant for jailing innocent Westerners as political hostages, the threat posed by a nuclear Iran to America, Israel and the Arab world is by far the greater of the two evils.
Diplomatic postings to Tehran could be chosen on a voluntary basis, and while security concerns would have to be carefully considered, the United States has not shied away from the challenge of maintaining embassies in other high-risk environments, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Bush administration's policy of multiparty negotiations with Iran backed by weak United Nations sanctions is headed toward failure. These penalties are simply too shallow to dissuade Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and disempower President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from seeking nuclear weapons.
Obviously, reopening Tehran's U.S. Embassy on its own would by no means comprise a sufficient campaign to defuse Iran's nuclear program, nor would it halt Iranian sponsorship of terrorism against Israel, Lebanon or Iraq. However, it could be one of a handful of creative measures designed to enhance the sticks-and-carrots approach utilized toward Iran in the limited time frame available.
Two promising developments are the keynote Iran bills of U.S. Congressman Tom Lantos (Dem.), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. His Iran Counter-Proliferation Act would press European governments to stop subsidizing investment in Iran's energy sector and would impose sanctions on multinational firms that engage in such ill-advised deals.
Additionally, his International Nuclear Fuel for Peace and Nonproliferation Act would encourage the United States to supply cheap nuclear fuel to developing countries, provided that they fully comply with international safeguards and permit the United States or another established nuclear power to conduct enrichment on their behalf.
This generous offer would put Iran's leaders in a difficult bind: abandon their ambitions for nuclear weapons or expose their sinister ambitions for the entire world to see. The United States is running out of time to confront the Iranian nuclear menace, especially if it hopes to avoid military confrontation. President Bush should act soon, announcing his intention to reopen the embassy in Tehran without delay as these important bills make steady progress toward passing into law.
David A. Weinberg recently served as a Democratic professional staff member on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He is pursuing his doctorate in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.