July 17, 2008 -- Senior U.S. officials tell ABC News that no decision has yet been made on whether to open the first American diplomatic post in Iran in almost 30 years — despite a British newspaper report to the contrary.
An unsourced story in The Guardian newspaper said the Bush administration will announce next month that it plans to open an interest section, an official post short of an embassy, in Tehran.
Such a decision would put American officials in Iran for the first time since 52 diplomats were held hostage for 444 days from 1979 to 1981.
The administration has said in the past that it is considering establishing an interest section in Iran, but today would not confirm the report that a decision had been reached.
"We're not going to discuss internal deliberations of the U.S. government," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
U.S. officials, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the administration, said the administration has considered establishing an interest section in Iran for several years. The hope is that such a diplomatic presence would send a positive message to the Iranian people, the officials said.
Establishing an interest section would not formally re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran, which were severed in 1980 during the Iran hostage crisis, but would provide a venue for processing U.S. visa applications and interacting with the Iranian population.
Iran would have to approve the establishment of such an American diplomatic presence. So far the Iranian response has ranged widely, from saying they are not opposed to the idea, to dismissal of the proposal as "propaganda."
The concept of an American interest section in Tehran has received support from members of both parties on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it was a "good idea."
"A diplomatic presence would increase our knowledge of the forces at work inside Iran," Biden said. "It would give us a stronger diplomatic hand to play. And it would decrease the chances of miscalculation and would also help us more effectively operate exchange programs so as to increase contacts between Americans and the Iranian people."
The top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., called the concept "forward-looking."
During testimony before Congress last week, William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said that establishing an interest section in Tehran was "an interesting concept" and added that it was "worth looking at carefully."
"We do have a real and abiding interest in deepening our connection to Iranian society and to Iranians. We would like for there to be more interactions," he told lawmakers.
Burns will travel to Geneva for meetings on Saturday with Iran, alongside representatives for five world powers who together have presented Iran with an offer of incentives to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
His presence at the meeting marks an about face for the Bush administration, which has said it would not meet with Iran until it suspended its nuclear program.
The State Department today ruled out Burns' meeting as a vehicle to advance efforts to establish an interest section.
"There's not going to be any discussion of that at this meeting on Saturday," McCormack said.
McCormack rejected the suggestion that the administration is using every tool available in its waning months in office just to show progress before the next president arrives.
"Where we see opportunities to advance the national interests via foreign policy, we are going to take them," he said. "We're not going to take them, though, just for the sake of the clock."