"It may be an icebreaker." That is the way diplomats in Washington are describing the weekend regional talks in Baghdad that brought US and Iranian diplomats face to face for a hand-shake.
Though there have been no formal diplomatic relations between the two countries for years, messages have been quietly sent through backdoor channels for some time. Some have had marginally positive results, some have been rebuffed. But the weekend session in Baghdad was the first time in years that US and Iranian diplomats have met openly and officially, albeit within the framework of a regional gathering.
The hope now is that the Baghdad meeting of some 16 nations to discuss stabilizing Iraq will be succeeded in the next month by a meeting of these nations at the foreign minister level. That could find US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sitting across the table from her Iranian counterpart.
Conservatives within the Bush administration reject the prospect of serious negotiations with Iran until Iran renounces a nuclear program that they believe is designed to equip Iran with nuclear weapons. Other Republicans – former Secretary of State James Baker, for example – recommend dialogue with Iran to explore an easing of the tensions that have been growing between the two.
It would be fanciful to expect that the US and Iran are ready to engage in a grand strategic dialogue. Nor is there any public indication that Iran is willing to freeze its nuclear program in the manner that North Korea is supposedly ready to do after long negotiations that have included both threats and economic blandishments.
But there may be a prospect of Iran participating in some measures that would stabilize Iraq and speed the withdrawal of American troops. Iran clearly seeks to be a commanding influence in the Middle East. That would mean influence in Iraq as well. But a stable Iraq, with American forces departed, might fit better in Iran's plan than an Iraqi neighbor destabilized by civil war.
For instance, after the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, Iran found it expedient to cooperate with the US to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan. It feared instability in that country on its eastern border and arranged alliances between warlords that it backed in Afghanistan and the incoming US forces.
The Iranians also played a role in establishing the anti-Taliban government. The facilitator in this was Lakhdar Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister who successfully engineered a number of peacekeeping missions around the world on behalf of the United Nations. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Brahimi confirmed his role in setting up multilateral meetings in 1998 and 2001 that included Iranian and American representatives.
If there is now a possibility of some serious tension-relieving discussions between Iran and the US, changing events in each country may have encouraged it.
The dispatch by President Bush of two carrier forces to waters off Iran must have captured the attention of the Iranian regime. US spokesmen have been quick to deny that the US is about to make war on Iran. But Mr. Bush has become increasingly impatient with Iranian meddling in Iraq that he says includes a flow of deadly weapons used against American soldiers. When he declares he is "going to do something about it," it may have triggered memories in Tehran of the awesome American air power used against Saddam Hussein's capital.
Another development in Iran is the apparent cooling of support among the country's young and unemployed for their controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They argue that he has occupied himself with making sensational and provocative charges against the US and Israel while neglecting to fulfill election promises to improve the economy.
A further event that might suggest disillusion with Iran's direction is the defection to the US reported by British and Israeli newspapers of an important Iranian general, Ali Resa Asgari. Described as a general in the elite Revolutionary Guards and a former deputy defense minister, he is said to have played a key role in the training and development of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah organization in Lebanon. The reports add that he could provide Western intelligence agencies with critical information about Iranian weaponry and military tactics.
Meanwhile, there has clearly been a shift in the Bush administration's foreign policy away from the unilateral emphasis to multilateralism, and from confrontation to engagement. Mindful of how little time there is left in his presidency, Bush may be intent on leaving a tidier world to what he hopes will be a Republican successor.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is currently a professor of communications at Brigham Young University.