United States Seeks To Engage the Iranian People

By David Shelby
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – After 25 years of holding each other at arm’s length, the United States is seeking to engage the people of Iran in direct exchanges with the hope of building stronger ties and greater understanding between Iranians and Americans, says Under Secretary of State R. Nicholas Burns.

Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee March 29 that the United States and Iran remain in an unusual diplomatic position.

“We have no relationship with them; we have no embassy there; we have very few American businesses there, very few American journalists.  There literally has been no contact between our countries,” he said.  “And so while we are opposed to the Iranian regime, we ought to be open to increased contacts with the Iranian people.”

Burns outlined several programs the State Department has undertaken over the past year to reach out to the Iranian people.  The United States has expanded its Persian-language television, radio and Internet presence as a means of communicating with the people of Iran.  He also described citizen exchange programs allowing Iranian students and working professionals to gain firsthand exposure to American people and society. (See related article.)

“[I]f we cannot have a normal relationship with the Iranian government - and we don't have one right now and there's no hope of an early resumption of diplomatic relations - surely we can open up connections to people in Iran,” he said.  “We've all seen the huge, long-term impact of having someone study in our country and get to know the American people and what that means in 30, 40 years when that person is in a position of some influence in their society.”

Senators from both parties welcomed the Bush administration’s initiatives.  The committee’s ranking Republican member, Richard Lugar of Indiana, called for a “full-court press” by the United States to promote people-to-people exchanges.

“I think there is certainly evidence that as Americans who have been innovative have attempted to get to know the Iranians better and have been going into the country and so forth, there have been productive results,” he said.  He called it “critically important that we get to know Iran better.”

Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden urged the administration to carry its initiatives further and allow more U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to operate in Iran.  Currently, all U.S. entities face strict limitations on their activities in Iran due to economic sanctions that the United States has imposed on the Iranian government over the past 25 years.

Burns said the administration would like to see more U.S. NGOs working in Iran, but he cautioned that direct links between U.S. organizations and civil society groups in Iran could be politically harmful to those groups.

In addition to promoting citizen exchanges, the State Department is building its capacity to understand Iran, Burns said.  Over the past two years the department has expanded its Iran desk from one person to eight people and established an Iran office staffed with Persian speakers in Dubai.  Burns likened the Dubai office to Riga station, the U.S. outpost in Riga, Latvia, where diplomats studied the Soviet Union before the United States opened its embassy in Moscow in 1933.

Burns also noted that some members of Congress have sought to establish relations on a personal level with the Iranian Majles [Iranian parliament], and he welcomed those efforts.

The full text (PDF, 57KB) of Burns' testimony is available on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Web site.