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Rice: Now Up to Obama to Decide on Iran 'Interests Section'

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday the Bush administration supports the idea of opening a U.S. diplomatic "interests section" in Iran. But she says the press of other matters delayed action on the issue, and that the decision will now be left to the incoming Barack Obama administration. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

There have been news reports for several months that the Bush administration was considering opening a diplomatic mission in Iran, and Rice confirmed at her news conference Wednesday that President Bush made a decision in principle to do so some time ago.

But the Secretary of State says the Russia-Georgia crisis in August and other issues intervened to delay implementation. She says that now with only two months left in the Bush administration the matter will be left to President-elect Obama.

Despite the lack of U.S. - Iranian diplomatic relations, Tehran has operated an interests section in Washington for several years, technically part of the embassy of Pakistan.

U.S. officials have said Iran would not have a strong case to oppose the setting up of a similar U.S. mission in Tehran, which would issue visas for Iranians traveling to the United States and conduct people-to-people outreach programs.

Rice told reporters President Bush decided to support an interests section in the context of a firm U.S. policy confronting Iranian nuclear ambitions, aggressive actions in the Middle East and political repression at home. But she said the necessary contacts with Iran on the issue never began because of the press of other business.

"Frankly, at the point at which we most likely would have done it, we were right in the middle of the Georgia-Russia conflict, and then a number of other international events I think just made it difficult to do," Rice said."And so I think that within the context of a firm policy toward Iran, something that reaches out to the Iranian people is very important, and you rightly say that eyes on the ground is also very valuable. But it is awfully important that it be understood that the constituency here is not the Iranian regime, but the Iranian people."

Rice said the State Department has done internal work on how a Tehran interests section would function but said that "at this late moment" it is better that the decision to proceed be left to the next administration.

The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, when Iranian student activists took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held many staff officials hostage for more than a year.

Diplomats of the two countries have interacted at multi-lateral meetings in recent years, including a Geneva meeting in July when Under-Secretary of State William Burns was part of a big-power meeting with Iran's nuclear negotiator.