Why does Iran still have operatives in Washington?

Most Americans don’t realize that operatives of the Iranian regime are still employed in Washington, D.C. 

After supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took 52 diplomats hostage, the United States severed relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and shuttered the 10 diplomatic facilities the revolutionaries inherited. The United States has rented some of these buildings out at times.

Yet for decades, the Iranian regime has operated an Interests Section in Washington, D.C. to facilitate consular duties such as issuing visas for travel to Iran, led by a senior Iranian diplomat. The United States, by contrast, delegates all its consular duties in Iran to the Swiss Embassy, whose diplomats carry out consular visits to Americans held in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

Today, the Iranian Interests Section is far exceeding its mandate, with its employees apparently helping to organize commemorations with regime-linked mosques of the deceased Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi, known by Iranian dissidents as the Butcher of Tehran.

On May 22, an employee of the Interests Section, Ramezan Soltan-Mohammadi, was recorded making death-threat gestures to members of the Iranian-American diaspora protesting at one such gathering in Potomac, Md.

It’s well past time to shutter the Iranian Interests Section. The U.S. government shouldn’t be facilitating U.S. travel to Iran in the first place; the risk of Americans being held hostage and the costs for their release are both exorbitantly high. 

Even the Biden administration has repeatedly messaged its warnings to Americans against travel to Iran, though the State Department still directs visa-seekers to the Iranian Interests Section.

We shouldn’t permit a single employee of the Iranian regime to work in Washington, D.C. either — especially considering the regime’s ongoing efforts to assassinate several senior former U.S. officials, including Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. These employees are also routinely caught filming anti-regime protests, endangering the safety of countless Americans and their relatives back inside Iran.

Should the Interests Section be closed, Americans set on risking their safety, ignoring repeated U.S. government warnings and traveling to Iran would have to visit another Iranian consulate abroad to obtain their visa. Hopefully, this extra hassle would deter unnecessary visits to Iran and save further Americans from landing up in Evin Prison.

It’s also time to rethink the future of the Iranian government’s formal embassy. In contrast to the regime’s treatment of the U.S. embassy, the United States has spent millions of dollars annually in upkeep for the old Iranian embassy on Massachusetts Avenue (prime and expensive D.C. real estate known as Embassy Row) and a neighboring vacant 44-room Georgian mansion. 

The embassy’s facilities remain an incredible asset; designed in 1961 with around 40 parking spaces and an impressively tiled dome.

Yet when I stopped by the embassy’s grounds last fall, a maintenance worker told me recent flooding left the interior of the building in a terrible condition, and “the basement looks like it came out of a Saw movie.” Water damage that was ignored because of the building’s vacancy has left the building full of mold. The worker told me at least $2 million in repairs is needed to abate the mold, and, reportedly, a further $10 to 14 million is needed to restore the building to full functionality.

This renovation could be worthwhile, but not merely to preserve the diplomatic promises of the past. Today, the prospect of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement and the return of the embassy to a friendly Iranian government is unfortunately illusory. The hopes for a popular overthrow of the regime have stalled in the face of severe oppression in Iran, a fractured opposition movement abroad and weakened pressure on the regime from lax sanctions enforcement by the Biden administration.

Like many exiled political movements, the Iranian diaspora is plagued by infighting and desperately needs a unifying mission. The rehabilitation of the Iranian embassy provides one such opportunity. The U.S. government should launch a public-private partnership that could shepherd an appropriate future for the Iranian embassy building and bring in private funds for the work.

Instead of large mansions gathering dust and mold costing the U.S. taxpayer millions of dollars each year, this partnership could transform these relics into a center to honor and celebrate Iranian culture and heritage, perhaps with a small hotel to once again host parties as in the days of old. Congress might even throw in a few bucks to get the initiative started.

That would be far cheaper than the status quo of paying for years of security guards and repairmen to shoo out the rats and oversee the embassy’s inevitable decay. 

Worst case scenario: Iran gets a new, friendly government and the keys are handed back — an outcome all stakeholders can certainly hope for.

Gabriel Noronha (@GLNoronha on X) is the executive director of Polaris National Security and a fellow with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA). He previously served as the special advisor for Iran at the State Department under Secretary Pompeo.

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