Ever since the end of the Gulf War, the US has insisted that it will not negotiate with Saddam Hussein -- at least, not until he completely abandons any clandestine effort to obtain weapons of mass destruction.
But now the United States may be budging, just a bit, on its no-wrangling pledge. The result: Diplomacy could get a last, best chance at solving the most serious standoff between the US and Iraq in over six years.
At time of writing this situation remained fluid. The US appears ready, however, to allow increased humanitarian aid to Iraq if UN weapons inspectors are allowed to return. US officials insist that no quid pro quo would be involved. There must be no preconditions to letting the inspectors go back to work, they say.
However, if the crisis "is resolved satisfactorily, and Saddam Hussein comes back into compliance, we would be in favor of having more oil available . . . for food to avoid any suffering we could avoid to the Iraqi people," said National Security Adviser Sandy Berger on Nov. 18.
That may indicate a sort of negotiation without really engaging in talks. It may also reflect the massive pressure on the US from allies in the Middle East and elsewhere to solve the crisis without resorting to bombs.
Russia's role has been particularly crucial, as a surprise visit by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz to Moscow on Nov. 18 shows.
"We hope these efforts will help move the whole situation towards a political solution," said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Tarasov, as Mr. Aziz held talks with Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov in Moscow.
But Aziz was disappointed if he had hoped Moscow would support Iraq's expulsion of American members of the United Nations inspection team checking for weapons of mass destruction, which Iraq must destroy under UN resolutions passed in the wake of the 1991 US-led Gulf War.
"Russia's position remains unchanged that the Iraqi authorities must annul their illegal step to impose conditions on UNSCOM," the UN inspection team, said Russian spokesman Tarasov, as Mr. Aziz held talks with Mr. Primakov.
"After that, and only after that, should other issues be discussed," he said.
At the same time, Russia is in a good position to convince Baghdad, as a friend, that it should comply with UN resolutions.
Moscow enjoys enough trust in Iraq to be able to offer compromise solutions that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might accept.
At the personal level, Mr. Primakov is an Arabic-speaking former journalist who has lived in Baghdad, and who maintained close links with the Iraqi leadership throughout his career as a Soviet specialist in Middle Eastern affairs.
At the political level, Baghdad is grateful to Moscow for the manner in which it has consistently argued in the UN Security Council in favor of gradually easing the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, and of rewarding the Iraqis step by step for the partial destruction of its arsenal.
Russia has been careful to nurture the ties that Moscow enjoyed with Baghdad during the Soviet era, when the Kremlin and Saddam were close allies in opposing US policy in the Middle East.
Those ties have a solid economic foundation that gives an added edge to Moscow's current desire to defuse the Iraqi crisis.
Under the oil-for-food program, for example, allowing Baghdad to export $4 billion worth of oil a year in order to import basic supplies, Russia is a major oil customer, and has pushed for the ceiling to be doubled.
At the same time, Russia has a huge stake in seeing sanctions lifted, and the Iraqi economy functioning normally again.
Baghdad has a $7 billion debt to Moscow, none of which it can pay off until it starts earning money, and the Russian oil industry is champing at the bit to invest in Iraq as soon as sanctions end.
Russian companies won a $3.8 billion tender earlier this year to develop Iraq's West Kurna oil field, but can do nothing until the sanctions are lifted by the UN. Other Russian firms have been assured of good deals in the future.
"We received firm promises in Iraq that Russia, and not companies from other countries also interested in developing economic links with Baghdad will be a priority partner" after sanctions are lifted, Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Posuvalyuv said last year. "We are looking forward to the time when we will be able to have full-scale economic cooperation."
Russia's self-interest in seeing the economic embargo lifted is a motivation for pressuring Baghdad that Saddam can appreciate, rather than suspect.
Saddam also knows that many officials in the Russian Foreign Ministry share his view that even compliance with UN resolutions does not guarantee sanctions will be lifted, and that Washington has no intention of allowing an end to the embargo while he remains the leader of Iraq.
This attitude, Russian diplomats say, has nothing to do with the UN resolutions, which concern weapons of mass destruction only.
But even as Moscow steps up its role in Middle East diplomacy, officials here have not forgotten that all their efforts were to no avail in stopping the Gulf War seven years ago, or in averting last year's American missile strike.
"We have an opportunity to play a positive role," said Tarasov. "Whether it is a key role or another role, we shall see."