It may not be the fall of the Berlin Wall. Still, a significant change is afoot. The decades-long gap between the super Islamic Republic of Iran and superpower US may finally be narrowing.
Iran's decision to bare its nuclear activities for international inspectors - and its attendance at the Iraq donors' meeting in Madrid this week - may signal its willingness to deal more openly with the US.
That, experts and government officials say, is extremely important. Iran has something the US desperately wants, beyond Iran's compliance on the nuclear front: Several high-level Al Qaeda members are in Iran. The US and some of its allies have been quietly negotiating behind the scenes for their release. But so far, Iran has not been willing to give them up.
"With the Iranians having worked through the nuclear issue, the temperature may drop sufficiently to where this issue can become resolvable," says Adel al-Jubeir, foreign-affairs adviser to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah.
It's not clear if talks will take place between the Iranian delegation to Madrid and US officials, or if Iran will make a contribution toward rebuilding Iraq. But Iran Thursday followed through on its agreement with Germany, France, and Britain by delivering documents on the creation of its nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Experts say the time for repairing the relationship has not been better in decades. "The Iranians may be signaling a willingness to put everything on the table," says Judith Yaphe, an expert on the Middle East at the National Defense University in Washington. "Everything is negotiable."
The US and Iran haven't exactly been on friendly terms since the 1979 Islamic revolution, when 52 Americans were taken hostage inside the US Embassy in Tehran and held for 444 days. But talks and exchanges at various levels have occurred over the past few years, as a reform movement in Iran has gained momentum.
Still, President Bush labeled Iran a member of the "axis of evil" in his January 2002 State of the Union address. And after last May's terrorist attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the US broke off talks with Iran on all levels. US officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, accused Iran of harboring Al Qaeda members who were participants in those attacks.
"There's no question that there are Al Qaeda in Iran," Mr. Rumsfeld said at a May 20 Pentagon briefing. "Countries that are harboring those terrorist networks and providing a haven for them are behaving as terrorists by so doing."
Iranian officials, for their part, hedge about an Al Qaeda presence. First, they publicly denied that any Al Qaeda members were inside Iran. Then they admitted several were there, and they indicated a willingness to hand them over - not to the US, but to their countries of origin. So far, however, they have not.
According to European, Saudi, and US government sources, several high-level members of Al Qaeda are either in Iran or moving freely across the Afghan-Iran border. Those include Osama bin Laden's No. 2, Zayman al-Zawahiri; Mr. bin Laden's son, Saad bin Laden; the No. 3 in charge of military operations, Said al-Adel; and Abu Gheith, Al Qaeda's spokesman. Up to a dozen "serious Al Qaeda members" are there, and a total of some 50 foot soldiers, as well as family members, swelling the total figure to about 300.
A different tone was set, however, when Germany, France, and Britain recently negotiated Iran's agreement to comply with an IAEA deadline of Oct. 31. A European government official with knowledge of those meetings says the Al Qaeda issue is on the table, too.
The reason Iran hasn't moved on this issue, the European official says, is that "the Al Qaeda members provide Iran with a bargaining chip."
Iran, this official goes on to say, wants three things from the US in return for handing over the Al Qaeda members to their countries of origin:
• Removal from the US "axis of evil" list.
• US clampdown on Mujahideen e-Khalq, a movement that wants to overthrow the Iranian government. It has had offices in the US, despite being named on the State Department's list of terror organizations, and it continues to operate freely in Iraq.
• Freedom to pursue a peaceful, nuclear power program.
"Just think if, say, the French or the US offered to put the Mujahideen e-Khalq under our protection," says Dr. Yaphe. "What a trade-off for Iran."
Saudi Arabia has also been negotiating with Iran for the return of Saudi members of Al Qaeda. Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, traveled to Iran this past summer. Another Saudi delegation spent two weeks there later, but the Saudi nationals were not returned.
"The majority of them [in Iran] aren't Saudis," says Mr. Jubeir, the foreign- affairs adviser. "Most of the names I have seen tend to be from the Egyptian wing of Al Qaeda."
But he says the Saudis are continuing to talk with Iranians about this issue: "Our position is they should be handed over to their countries of origin, and I believe eventually they will be handed over."