THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL
Just over a decade old, the Iran Watcher program
is an organizational model for remote diplomacy
and a benchmark for success.
BY J I L L I AN BURNS
Jillian Burns joined the Foreign Service in 1993 and spent most of her career as a political officer working on the Middle East, particu-
larly Iran. She served as an Iran desk officer and Iran watcher, and was the first director of the Iran Regional Presence Office in Dubai.
She has also served as acting director of the Office of Iranian Affairs in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, an Iran issues staff member
in the Office of Policy Planning, and the first National Intelligence Officer for Iran at the National Intelligence Council, within the Of-
fice of the Director of National Intelligence. Other assignments include consul and senior civilian representative in Herat, Afghanistan,
and director of the Near East Affairs Office in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Burns retired from the Foreign Service in November
The opinions and characterizations in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the United States
here are definitely some advantages
to working on a country with which
the United States has no diplomatic
relations. For instance, you never have
to deliver demarches to bored second
secretaries at the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs, or attend tedious National
Day receptions. The obvious chal-
lenge, however, is how tomake sense
of a country where we have no access. Given our national security
concerns regarding some of Iran’s domestic and external activities,
the State Department has a duty to our president and to our nation
to help address this challenge. We owe decision-makers the most
credible assessments of political, economic and social realities in
Iran, as well as our most considered policy recommendations.
The Iran Watcher Program:
A Different Kind
The history of our rupture of relations with Iran is well known,
stemming from the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent
hostage-taking of 53 U.S. diplomats who were held for 444 days.
Ever since then, the diplomatic model we have used in Iran is in
many ways the mirror image of the one we followed for 53 years in
Cuba. We send no official Americans to Iran, but do not obstruct
the travel of unofficial Americans beyond warning themof the
potential risks. In Cuba, we have official representation (via a U.S.
interests section) but restrict private travel by U.S. citizens.
The Swiss ably represent our interests in Iran, but are no substi-
tute for our own political and economic reporting officers. There is
occasional talk of trying to reopen some kind of U.S. office in Teh-
ran, but I doubt the Iranian government will allow that to happen
any time soon—even though it has its own sizable interests section
inWashington and a mission at the United Nations in New York.