The first public, senior-level talks between the United States and Iran in more than two decades were never going to be a lovefest.
But the fact that the four hours of discussions on Iraq's security took place at all here Monday suggests how much each of the two avowed opponents – and indeed the top leader of each country – wanted them.
On the US side, and for President George Bush, joining these talks signals a new determination to test all diplomatic avenues for bringing greater security and stability to Iraq. Beyond that, it heralds the rise of foreign-policy pragmatists within the US administration.
For Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, sitting down with the US signifies recognition by the world's superpower that Iran is a major power not just in Iraq, but in the Middle East.
Iran underscored that objective Monday by proposing a trilateral mechanism of the US, Iraq, and Iran for addressing security issues, a proposal that if accepted would presumably lock the US into a dialogue with Iran. The US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, who led the US delegation, did not dismiss the idea outright but said Washington would have to review any such proposals.
Noting that he told the Iranians, led by their ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, that the US first wants to see Iran shutting down supplies of arms and explosives to Iraqi Shiite militias. Mr. Crocker said, "We will wait to see what happens next on the ground."
Crocker's characterization of the talks as "positive" suggests, without sounding overly anxious, that they are an avenue the administration wishes to pursue.
"The talks would not be taking place unless Bush backed them and ... Khamenei backed them," says Juan Cole, an expert on Iraq and Shiite movements at the University of Michigan. "[President Bush] is to the point where he will try anything," he adds, but "it also points to the increased influence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice" and the administration's new Iraq team: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his man in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and Crocker, who recently arrived from Pakistan.
"Khamenei wants new relations with the world, he wants to pursue the dialogue he opened with the West, but he wants this dialogue to produce a new recognition of Iran as a power that must be reckoned with in the region," says Hussain Hafeid, a professor of international relations at Baghdad University. "Sitting down one-on-one with the US," he adds, "is an opportunity to put relations on an equal footing."
No subsequent meeting of the two parties was set after Monday's session, which took place in the offices of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. The Iraqi government indicated it would extend an invitation to the US and Iran for another discussion in the near future, and Crocker said the US "will entertain it when we receive it."
But this new dialogue for one of the world's most nettlesome relationships will have to overcome at least two significant roadblocks: First, both countries have powerful opponents to any move that could suggest a US-Iran détènte; and the kind of "proof on the ground" of "better behavior" on the part of the Iranians that Crocker says the US wants to see will be difficult to prove.
"Virtually everything Iran is doing in Iraq is highly covert, so it could take months for ... our military to establish whether Iran is fulfilling any promises it might make to cease activities such as gun-running to Shiite militias, moving EFPs across the border," and so on, says Wayne White, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
EFPs, or Explosively Formed Penetrators, are an especially lethal type of roadside bomb that the Pentagon says is coming into Iraq from Iran and is used by Shiite extremists to target US soldiers.
Just stopping the arrival and use of EFPs in Iraq would be progress for the US. But opponents of the dialogue on the US side, focused in Vice President Dick Cheney's office and a number of conservative Washington think tanks and policy consultants, see bigger reasons to oppose any diplomatic effort toward Iran.
Opponents of the talks say they could open the door to Iran developing a nuclear weapon and extending its influence in the region even further.
"The US-Iran talks are deeply unpopular among some elements in Washington and Tehran," says Mr. Cole. "The Cheney camp is reported to be opposed to them, and the arrests [in Iran] of Iranian-American academics in recent days may well be an attempt by some in the camp of [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to sabotage these talks."
Steven Clemons, publisher of the Washington Note blog and director of the American strategy program at the New American Foundation in Washington, goes further. He says his recent discussions with some White House officials indicate Mr. Cheney "fears that the president is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously."
Cheney, Mr. Clemons says, believes Bush is committing a "disastrous mistake" by talking to Iran.
In Iran, the more extremist elements aligned with Mr. Ahmadinejad believe Iran has extended its power and influence in the region over recent years by standing up to the US, not talking to it.
For now, the US-Iran dialogue suggests a new pragmatism. But more immediately, the US is concerned about Iran's growing influence in the south, Cole says. He notes that the Iraqi political party most closely aligned with Iran, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) , controls nine of 11 provincial administrations where there are substantial Shiite populations, including Baghdad. In addition, the SIIC's Badr Brigade militia has recently stepped up its participation in a ferocious battle by SIIC to take over Basra, at the hub of Iraq's rich southern oil fields, from another Shiite group, the Islamic Virtue Party or Fadhila. "Control of Basra would mean control of refineries and gasoline smuggling, worth billions," says Cole.
Hafeid says Iran wants the US out of Iraq. But by emphasizing in Monday's talks that the US has not done enough to train and equip Iraq's new security forces, the Iranians seemed to be suggesting it doesn't want the US to leave just yet.