(Recasts with new quotes, details)
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, March 18 The Obama administration,
in a sign of thawing ties with Iran, is likely soon to relax
restrictions on contacts between U.S. diplomats and Iranian
officials, said a source close to the matter.
But the source, who asked not to be named because a review
of U.S. policy on Iran is not complete, said the Bush
administration's idea to open a low-level diplomatic outpost in
Tehran was for now "off the table."
The plan is to make small but significant gestures to
Tehran, including an invitation to a conference on Afghanistan
this month, and to allow U.S. diplomats to see Iranian
officials without first seeking approval, as has been the case
for nearly 30 years.
"These contacts could be across the board," said the
source, adding that the review was not final and that President
Barack Obama still had to sign off on it.
Diplomatic sources and analysts said the idea of low to
mid-level contacts without first being authorized had been
discussed for a while and that this was broadly seen as a first
step towards higher-level engagement.
The United States cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran
during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, in which a group of
militant Iranian students held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage at the
American Embassy for 444 days.
Last year, the State Department's point person on Iran met
with his counterpart as part of multilateral talks with Tehran
over its nuclear program. That meeting was approved after much
debate within the Bush administration.
There were also contacts between the U.S. ambassador to
Iraq and his Iranian counterpart and discussions with Iran over
NO DIPLOMATIC OUTPOST YET
The Bush administration had been considering opening up a
U.S. interests section in Tehran, much as it has in Cuba, but
decided to leave this decision up to the next administration.
Having an interest section would stop well short of full
diplomatic relations but it would involve sending U.S.
diplomats to Tehran for the first time in 30 years.
Diplomats and the source close to the discussions on the
issue, said the Obama administration's policy review on Iran,
which is expected to be complete in the coming weeks, no longer
had this option on the table.
The Obama administration would like to lay the groundwork
for such a move first and any decision on that was unlikely at
least until after Iran's June elections.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her first
public overture to Iran earlier this month by inviting Tehran
to attend an international conference in the Hague on future
strategy towards Afghanistan.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said no bilateral
talks were planned between Clinton and her counterpart from
Tehran if he was at the conference.
"I will not rule out the fact that there could be some kind
of a, you know, a greeting of some type, but there's no plan,
as far as I know, for there to be a meeting between the two
delegations," Wood told reporters.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended
several conferences aimed at stabilizing Iraq, where Iran was
also invited. Rice exchanged pleasantries with Iran's foreign
minister at those events but never had substantive talks.
Wood said the Obama administration was in the midst of a
full review of its strategy towards Iran and he could not give
details of how engagement with Iran might ultimately unfold.
"Before we engage in a real dialogue with Iran on a number
of these issues, we need to finish our review. And I think
that's only fair," said Wood.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)