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US Considers Opening Interest Section in Tehran


State Department officials are acknowledging an internal debate over whether the United States should open a diplomatic interests section in Tehran. Iran said Tuesday it would consider a request from the United States to open a diplomatic presence. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The idea of opening a U.S. interests section in Tehran, first raised in a story Monday by the Washington Post, would seem to run counter to the Bush administration's policy of isolating Iran over its refusal to stop enriching uranium.

But in a talk with reporters en route to Europe Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointedly refused to rule out such a step, saying she preferred not to comment on what she termed U.S. internal deliberations.

Only hours later, Iran's official news agency said Tehran is ready in principle to consider such a request if one is made by the United States.

Formal diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, when student militants took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held American diplomats and others hostage for more than a year.

But diplomats of the two countries have interacted in various venues over the years, and Iran has quietly operated its own interests section in Washington for several years, technically part of the embassy of Pakistan.

At a news briefing Tuesday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey reiterated comments by Secretary Rice that despite its differences with the Iranian government, the United States is looking for ways to reach out to the Iranian people.

"Our issues with the current Iranian government including its nuclear program as well as its support for terrorist activities do not in any way mean hostility or animosity on the part of the U.S. toward the Iranian people and we have great respect for the Iranian people and for Iranian civilization," said Tom Casey. "And you've seen as well through some of the exchange activities that have been done, based on sports, medicine or art, that we're continually looking for ways to be able to find new means to reach out to the Iranian people."

The United States has an office in the Gulf state of Dubai dealing with routine visa matters for Iranians who visit the United States, while the Swiss embassy in Tehran handles U.S. interests in Iran.

Officials here say an American interests section in Tehran would be similar to the one operated by the United States in the Cuban capital Havana.

They say it would be somewhat awkward for Iran to turn down a U.S. request for such a mission, given Iran's diplomatic presence in Washington, which operates openly and even has its own internet website.

Secretary Rice, in her airborne comments Monday, said the United States wants more Iranians to visit the United States and acknowledged it is difficult for would-be Iranian visitors to access the visa office in Dubai.

Rice has repeatedly offered open-ended U.S. political dialogue with Iran, if the Tehran government heeds U.N. Security Council calls to suspend its uranium enrichment effort, which officials here believe is weapons-related.

A senior State Department official Tuesday declined to assess the chances for an American interests section to be opened in Tehran this year, but citing the example of the U.S. mission in Havana, he said stranger things have happened.