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MARCH 2015



Just over a decade old, the Iran Watcher program

is an organizational model for remote diplomacy

and a benchmark for success.


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

of Teleworking



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.