Visas for Iranians, not bunker busters

For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com

As the Israeli air force is getting ready to go it alone against the subterranean chambers where Iran is making enriched uranium, and its US counterpart wonders whether massive new munitions will deliver the necessary bang, an American retired senior diplomat in his mid-70s has been traveling the world to prevent that war happen. He made it his mission to convince US foreign service circles that the solution to the standoff is not bunker-busting bombs but respect for Iranians who apply for US visas. 

From his post as vice consul at the US Embassy in Tehran in the late 1960s to that of acting consul in Uzbekistan’s Tashkent in 2003, Thomas R Hutson’s CV spans dozens of high-ranking jobs in US embassies and international agencies around the world. 

Unlike many of those in Washington’s inner circles, Hutson knows the Iranian people well, the Iranian language – the situation

   

on the ground. The retired diplomat sees a concrete chance to dramatically improve US-Iran relations unlike many other observers do in Washington and elsewhere. He says that to prevent a cataclysmic disaster, it’s crucial to understand that the proud Iranian people want to be welcomed back into the community of nations. 

Hutson has lately been trying to pitch this notion to US active-duty diplomats as well as other relevant figures, and his ongoing trip to meet that objective took him to Taipei. 

As the US and Iran do not maintain diplomatic relations, Hutson puts non-profit “American Centers for Iranian Relations” at the core of his concept. The first of these entities to be roughly modeled after the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), which is the American de facto embassy in Taipei in absence of official ties, would be set up in Hutson’s home state of Nebraska. 

If such centers in other US states were to follow, their first goal would be to deal with the tens of thousands of Iranians refused visas “for reasons that often are not defensible”, as Hutson puts it. That would lead on eventually to the conduct of cultural and commercial relations between Americans and the people of Iran. 

“As the best possible result, it [change in Iran] could become as swift and silent as the coming down of the Berlin Wall,” Hutson said. “This is by no means intended to be a regime-change Trojan horse. But, once it is underway, who would be the government figure that would stop it from operating?” 

The elaborate plan sees neither US personnel stationed nor a US facility set up on Iranian soil. In what could be named “North American Visa Data Collection Points” to eventually be located in the Iranian cities of Mashad, Isfahan, Shiraz, Bandar Abbas, Khorramshahr, Hamedan, Tabriz and Karaj, staff at existing Iranian travel agencies that serve the North American market would collect applications for visas of Iranians who in the past decades have been rejected. 

Back in the “American Centers for Iranian Relations” in the US, the data would then be evaluated by a “Visa Refusal Review Board” made up of retirees with consular experience. The simple act of entering prior refusal data into a base in Iran to be considered by such as board would likely not require US legislative action. 

“The vast majority of such refusals will quickly be overcome, generating a wave of long-overdue reconsiderations. Following this initial process, there will be other endeavors and initiatives that will capture the spirit of a renewed relationship”, Hutson said.

“This will bring peace and understanding throughout the region, while securing the well being and prosperity of all its inhabitants.” 

The outcome of American war simulations involving both deterrence and retaliation on potential adversaries like Iran suggests that in case of an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, Iran would launch missiles on Israel and conduct terrorist-style attacks on US civilian and military personnel overseas. When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Barrack Obama at the White House on March 5, talks on such potential spirals of bloodshed certainly were on the very top of the agenda. 

There are indications that for initiatives like Hutson’s the US government is not receptive at the moment. 

In Taipei, the American de facto ambassador William Stanton – once Hutson’s classmate – turned down the request to meet over a cup of coffee. In Colombo, Sri Lanka, the US ambassador seemed too busy to even have a telephone conversation. 

The Iranian reception of the retired diplomat was much friendlier. At the Iranian Embassy in Bangkok, Hutson conducted an hour-long conversation with Mojtaba Zahedi, Counselor of Embassy, who, as Hutson said, “took copious notes, asked good questions and clearly understood what we have in mind.” 

In Colombo, the American was received warmly by Ambassador Dr M N Hassani Pour and Second Secretary Ali Akbar Baba and was also granted an hour to explain his plan. 

While having so far been given the cold shoulder from the US government, there’s a somewhat impressive list of prominent figures who back the endeavor or have at least expressed an interest. On it is Lowell Bruce Laingen, the US charge d’affaires in Iran in the late 1970s who was held for 444 days during the Iran hostage crisis. 

There’s also Ambassador John W Limbert, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs; retired Ltieutenant General David Barno, who is a former Coalition Commander in Afghanistan; E Thomas Greene, formerly US Consul in Iran’s fourth largest city of Tabriz; and Dr Richard T Arndt, former cultural affairs officer in the United States Information Agency (USIA) in Tehran during the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

In the first half of March, Hutson will lead an American-Canadian group comprised of people who were once held hostage in the US embassy in Tehran, his own granddaughter, a cleric, filmmakers, journalists and an entrepreneur to Iran to meet with the families of victims of the Iran Air civilian plane that was shot down by a US guided missile cruiser in 1988 over the Strait of Hormuz, resulting in the death of nearly 300 innocent civilians. 

The US government has paid compensation but never admitted responsibility, nor apologized to Iran. Then-vice president George H W Bush was infamously quoted as saying “I’ll never apologize for the United States of America. Ever. I don’t care what the facts are”, and Hutson’s group finds it’s long-overdue that Americans lay a wreath at an appropriate memorial in Iran to the victims. 

“Our proposal intends to start the process of healing the open wound. Other benefits could arise from that singularly human act”, Hutson said. “Will it bring down the nuclear specter posed by the current government leadership? Doubtful; but history has a funny way of unfolding in a counterintuitive way.” 

Asia Times Online confronted US political scientists with a roundup of Hutson’s initiative. Their comments augur that if there were to be such thing as US government hindsight, it could come well after the guns are leveled. 

“I am strongly in favor of opening embassies or offices in countries like Iran or North Korea. I don’t think Washington is likely to adopt this approach, however”, said Arthur Waldron, founder and vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Washington. 

John F Copper, a professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, has his doubts. He believes that if the consular services, as Hutson envisions them, showed that they were working, the Iranian government could and would immediately stop them, and that the US government would hardly consider getting in the boat in the first place. 

“It would probably not gain any public support, which is important given this is an election year. Then there would be concern that this would possibly be used to bring terrorists into the US,” Copper said. 

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