High atop a '70s-style high-rise building in the heart of this desert city, a group of US State Depart-ment officials have been setting up offices as part of an ambitious effort by the US to better monitor Iran and encourage political change there.
The State Department announced early this year that it would open the office in Dubai and set up an Iran desk in Washington in order to make contact with Iranians and improve its institutional knowledge of the country at a time when tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions are high.
US officials decided to locate an Iran office here because of the city's large community of Iranian busi-nesspeople, many of whom maintain relationships in Iran and return there often. Dubai has also long been popular among Iranians seeking to shop, vacation or hop flights elsewhere.
The State Department's program is only the highest profile effort here. The United Arab Emirates, the confederation that includes Dubai, has become a nexus of political activity concerning Iran, as numerous governments and groups have seized on the country's location and its longstanding ties with Tehran to get a better understanding of Iran and its people.
Dubai has become a main stop-off point for researchers and analysts seeking to meet Iranians, analysts here say, and regional research and advocacy groups have held numerous high-level conferences here in recent months focused on Gulf Security and Iran. At least one nongovernment group run by Iranian-American opposition figures has also used this city to hold workshops to train Iranians in techniques of civil disobedience aimed at eventually forcing political change inside Iran.
"The problem with Iran is you cannot operate inside the country, so you have to operate in the neighboring countries," said Mustafa Alani, senior researcher at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "But a place as open as Dubai naturally attracts people and intelligence agencies from all over the world. Of course, they're not really visible so you cannot pinpoint them in any one location."
On Friday, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns said the Dubai office was created in the spirit of the Riga station in Latvia, which became a critical source of knowledge about the Soviet Union at a time when the US did not have diplomatic relations with Moscow.
"We sent a young kid from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1926 out to Riga station: George Kennan," he said, referring to the man who would become one of the world's foremost Soviet experts. "We said, go and learn Russian. Sit in Riga. You be our window into the Soviet Union.
"That is what we are saying to these young kids today. You go to Dubai. We can't be in Iran. You interview every Iranian you can find, get to know them -- all the Iranians who come out and do their banking there and do their weekends there and you tell us how we should understand Iran."
About 200,000 Iranians live in Dubai, and contacts with them are considered especially useful because they are not political refug-ees, as in some other cities outside Iran with Iranian populations.