The United States Should Not Open an Interests Section in Tehran

Originally published in CFR Forum
November 4, 2008


In its waning days, the Bush administration is setting the stage for establishment of a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran manned by U.S. diplomats. The new administration should let this ill-thought and poorly-timed initiative drop.

Today is the 29th Anniversary of the Iranian seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Both reformists and hardliners continue to endorse the seizure. Few Americans remember the details of the embassy seizure. On November 1, 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski, president Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, met with Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi in Algiers to discuss, among other issues, the restoration of the U.S.-Iran relationship. The Shah was gone, but the U.S. government wanted to cement its relationship with the new revolutionary regime. Photos of their handshake appeared in Iranian newspapers the next day. Students, with Ayatollah Ruhollah's blessing, stormed the embassy the next day, holding 52 American diplomats for 444 days. What went wrong? In many ways, the U.S. diplomats were pawns in a struggle that had less to do with the United States and far more to do with Iran's domestic politics. The Islamic Revolution was popular: Fully ten percent of the Iranian population took part, not only ayatollahs and seminary students, but also liberals, merchants, students, religious leftists, among others. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was a symbol but, for months, it was uncertain he would be able to consolidate the power which history demonstrates he desired. His followers--Students Following the Line of the Imam--used the manufactured embassy crisis to force Bazargan's resignation and consolidate the revolution. Khomeini came out of the embassy seizure much stronger than his regime went into it. The Carter administration may have sought to engage moderates, but they inadvertently bolstered the hardliners.

The same pattern repeated when, in what became the Iran-Contra Affair, U.S. officials sought to engage revolutionary authorities in Tehran. One week after former U.S. national security advisor Robert McFarlane's secret trip to Tehran, Mehdi Hashemi, the son-in-law of Khomeini's deputy Hossein Ali Montazeri, leaked word of secret talks in pamphlets distributed at the University of Tehran. Six months later, Montazeri or his immediate aidesleaked word of McFarlane's meetings in the pro-Syrian Lebanese magazine Ash Shira'a. Twenty-two years ago today, former president and Expediency Council chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani confirmed the meeting to the international press. Whatever one thinks of Reagan administration actions, the fact remains that Iranian officials betrayed U.S. confidence in secret talks and crippled the remainder of the Reagan presidency. They did so, not out of spite for the United States, but rather for narrow domestic political reasons.

The list continues. After Mohammad Khatami's so-called Dialogue of Civilizations initiative, radical Iranian vigilantes attacked a busload of American businessmen. They did so to embarrass the Iranian government. The same day Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waved the conditions outlined in her May 31, 2006 speech and sent Undersecretary of State William Burns to Geneva to join nuclear negotiations and offer the Iranian government a generous incentives package, Mohammad Jafar Assadi, commander of the Revolutionary Guards' ground forces, declared that the concession proved that "America has no other choice but to leave the Middle East region beaten and humiliated." The problem is not diplomacy. Rather, it is inattention to timing. Poorly calibrated diplomacy can backfire, spark crisis, and benefit hardliners.

One day, it may be appropriate to send U.S. diplomats to Tehran. That day is not now nor will it come until there is broad consensus across the Iranian political spectrum about the direction in which Iranian leaders should take their country. The new U.S. President must think not only of U.S. desires, but also remain cognizant of the complex political scene in Tehran. While Iranians jockey for position ahead of their June 2009 presidential elections, and while vigilante groups continue to flex their muscles, any attempt to send U.S. diplomats prematurely may spark the crisis and test which Senator Joe Biden warned against.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.