The State Department's recent naming of a Persian-speaking press spokesman, Alan Eyre, opens a potentially important channel in the long-stagnant U.S.-Iran relationship. The absence of contact or inability to communicate at official levels means that American diplomats are often at a loss to understand the politics and power dynamics inside Iran. Without good information and analysis, policymakers cannot effectively calibrate efforts to either engage Iran for a more cooperative relationship or pressure Iran to comply with international expectations regarding its nuclear program and other issues in dispute.
Over the years, U.S. diplomats have developed indirect ways to improve knowledge about Iran. American diplomats in countries neighboring Iran try to glean insights about the thinking of Iranian officials through third parties and more generally from Iranian visitors. Dubai and Turkey are particularly important hubs of information-gathering on Iran, places where transiting Iranian visa-seekers, businessmen, intellectuals and politicians can directly or indirectly offer some sense of what is happening in Tehran.
But the stream of reporting may not be sufficient to steer U.S. policy. It rarely provides an authoritative link to Iran's decision-makers, and it is only one input to a policy process in Washington that is already framed by longstanding judgments about Iran's intentions and behavior. A major shift in U.S. thinking about Iran would more likely come about in two different ways: either Iran declares a new policy that the US can verify, or traditional, secretive intelligence methods that reveal a change the Iranians do not publicly acknowledge.
These views--including a growing demand from traveling Iranians for more attention to the Islamic Republic’s domestic human rights record--can occasionally have an impact, according to recent press accounts. Since Iran's disputed elections in 2009, U.S. policy has increasingly focused on the rights of Iran's citizens who protested those elections and demanded change in Iranian government policy. The reporting from individual Iranians gathered by U.S. diplomats in the region may have been helpful in building support for a renewed focus on human rights and democracy in Iran, shifting from the exclusive American focus on the security issues in U.S.-Iran relations.
Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Stimson Center, worked on Iran and other Middle East issues on the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council and at the Congressional Research Service.
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