During a 29-year absence of formal diplomatic ties with Iran, the U.S. government used many channels to gain insights about the Islamic regime's inner workings, from CIA contacts and meetings with Iranian exiles to relayed information from friendly foreign diplomats.
But the government's lines into Iran remain critically thin, posing a challenge for the Obama administration as it tries to track and respond to an unfolding crisis that may threaten the foundations of Iran's theocratic regime.
Setting up talks with Iranian leaders was a signature feature of President Barack Obama's foreign policy upon entering office. But he had made little discernible progress over the past several months before political upheaval erupted in Tehran last week over the disputed outcome of a presidential election that opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi called rigged.
Washington's lack of normal diplomatic access — both to Iran's hard-liners and its reformers — is now handicapping the administration on at least two levels. It restricts the American view of events inside Iran, where the government has cracked down on independent media coverage of street protests. And it limits U.S. officials' grasp of more subtle political undercurrents.
"There's a huge gap in understanding Iran," said Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, a nonpartisan group that advocates expanded U.S.-Iranian contacts.
'Misperceptions on both sides'
"There is no more effective way to understand the perceptions and intentions and concerns of the other side than to actually talk to them directly," Parsi said. "Not having done so in a robust way for 30 years has created misperceptions on both sides."
Parsi added that the U.S. has found ways to get around the lack of formal diplomatic ties, but "there's no substitute for actually being there on the ground."
Washington broke diplomatic relations with Tehran in April 1980, five months after Iranian students occupied the U.S. Embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. In April 1981 the Swiss government began representing U.S. interests in Tehran, providing a conduit for exchanges of messages.
At the time of the hostage-taking in November 1979, the U.S. government was caught by surprise at the student uprising, even though it had a diplomatic presence there at the time.
Now, with a new wave of popular unrest on the streets of Tehran, Washington is again scrambling to decipher Iran, only this time from afar.
In this decade the U.S. government has had a number of direct contacts with senior Iranian officials. Among them:
- A a series of meetings on Afghanistan in the early years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime. Iran has been invited to attend an international meeting next week in Italy on Afghanistan and Pakistan; the United States is scheduled to be represented there by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
- In 2007, high-level U.S. officials met several times with Iranian representatives to discuss Iraq.
- Last year the undersecretary of state for political affairs, William Burns, participated in a meeting, attended by Iran, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, to discuss Iran's nuclear program.
Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said it is a common practice for embassies in Washington to share information culled from their diplomats' contacts inside Iran and with Iranian exiles around the world.
No 'interest section' in Iran
Last year the administration of President George W. Bush considered setting up a diplomatic outpost, known as an interest section, in the Swiss embassy in Tehran. The Iranians have a similar arrangement in Washington, with Iranian officials present in Pakistan's embassy.
But in late November, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided to leave the decision to the next administration.
The extent and frequency of U.S. contacts with Iranian opposition figures is even less clear than the meager channels to the authoritarian regime.
In part because of Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology, which the U.S. believes is a disguised effort to build nuclear weapons, U.S. intelligence agencies and diplomats have put a high priority on tracking a variety of Iranian activities.
The CIA has links to international business people who either travel to Iran or have encounters, through conferences or other events, with Iranians in fields of interest to the U.S.
The State Department in 2006 set up an Iran monitoring post in Dubai, across the Persian Gulf from Iran, to quietly expand links to Iranians in the region.
Dubai is widely described as a focus of Iranian intelligence, which keeps a close eye on — and may even have a hand in — Iranian business. The first director of the Dubai office was Jillian Burns, now an Iran and Iraq policy planner at the State Department.
Also in 2006 the State Department established "Iran watchers" in U.S. embassies in Europe, including in Berlin.
"Their job is to reach out, talk to Iranians," said Patrick Clawson, a Persian-speaking author of several books on Iran. He is deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.
Clawson said the CIA has hired Iranian-Americans in this country to scour publicly available information produced by Iranians. The intelligence agencies and the departments of State and Defense also have put a much greater emphasis on training their officers in the Persian language and culture, he said.
"Just an explosion of people taking Persian courses," he said, adding that this has improved the government's ability to understand developments in Iran in the past few years.