The principal aim of the conference at the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Sheikh on 4-5 May 2007 is to help create stability in Iraq. But the presence of the Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki and the United States secretary of state Condoleezza Rice creates the possibility for the highest-level contact between Washington and Tehran since 2004. This rare opportunity for direct talks between senior officials from the "axis of evil" and the "great satan" could mark a major turning-point in creating a much-needed diplomatic dialogue.
The rhetorical belligerence on both sides still dominates their exchanges, but there are growing signs too that Iranians and Americans alike may be cautiously exploring a change of tack. A meeting in Ankara on 26 April between the European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana and Iran's nuclear envoy Ali Larijani to address the dispute over Iran's nuclear programme was followed by an appeal by Solana to the United States: talk directly to Iran. Solana reinforced the point by saying that he believed that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, had given Larijani the authority to engage in such direct negotiations.
Nasrin Alavi is the author of We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs (Portobello Books, 2005). She spent her formative years in Iran, attended university in Britain and worked in London, and then returned to her birthplace to work for an NGO for a number of years. Today she lives in Britain.
Also by Nasrin Alavi on openDemocracy:
"Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fear"
(1 November 2005)
(14 February 2006)
"Iran: the elite against the people"
(22 May 2006)
"Tehran's red card to human rights"
(23 June 2006)
"Iran: cracks in the façade"
(11 December 2006)
"Iran's election backlash"
(19 December 2006)
"Iran's attack blowback" (5 February 2007)
"Women in Iran: repression and resistance"
(5 March 2007)
The latter point is no secret to informed observers of the intricacies of Iranian regime politics. Larijani is also secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and in that role reports directly to Khamenei. The Khamenei-Larijani nexus helps explain Larijani's own request in May 2006 (through diplomatic channels, but heavily leaked) for direct talks with the US; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rambling, unworldly public letter to his counterpart George W Bush in the same month is also inconceivable without it.
Indeed, inside Iran there is - notwithstanding the regime's routine double-talk - virtual open house on broaching the once-taboo subject of "normalising" relationships with the US. The visit to Damascus of the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, was followed by speculation that Tehran would be her next destination; the suggestion was met with enthusiastic words of "support" by the first deputy speaker of the majlis (parliament) and head of its main rightwing faction, Mohammad Reza Bahonar.
Old agenda, new champions
For ordinary Iranians, such dramatic U-turns are almost too bizarre for words - especially at a time when journalists have been prosecuted and their newspapers shut down merely for evaluating the state of US-Iran relations. In 2002 three separate Iranian polling institutes - including the National Institute for Research Studies and Opinion Polls (Nirsop) were closed and their researchers imprisoned for revealing that 64.5% of Iranians favoured resumption of talks between Iran and the United States.
Ali Abtahi, Iran's deputy president during the reformist era of Mohammad Khatami's presidency (1997-2005) comments on the current reversals of attitude in a short article titled "As always, if only". He says that "the taboo of dialogue with the US has broken... and everyone is openly racing for US talks, waiting to see what the other side has to say". Abtahi recalls that in 2000, a potential meeting between Khatami and Bill Clinton was choreographed on the fringe of the "millennium summit" of the United Nations; but that "the (Iranian) president did not have the option of talking with an American president, and to escape talks he had to resort to a game of hide-and-seek".
In 2000, the power of the conservatives opposed to Khatami blocked any progress; the Iranian media and conservative political circles were awash with condemnation of Khatami for as much as being present at the same venue as a US president. Today, by contrast, the public are being prepared by Iran's state-controlled media for the prospect of talks with the US. The official Islamic Republic News Agency even proclaims a "new US stance" towards Iran.
The most progressive Iranian reformists have long sought a resumption of ties with the US and a broader reintegration of Iran into the world economy. This would reduce state domination of an economy (supported by huge oil reserves) that is crippled by corruption and negligence, and loosen the control of social and political life by state institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards and their allies. In this view, there is a direct link between a more engaged foreign policy and more liberal economic policy on one side, and the empowerment of civil society on the other.
The agenda of reformists such as Khatami - which they were unable to implement - is now being considered by those very far from him politically. Many powerful figures and factions in Iran have come to believe that a new economic policy is needed to correct Ahmadinejad's serious mismanagement of what should (at a time of high oil prices) be a booming economy. But they are aware that Iran's economic woes will only end when Ahmadinejad is banished and the country can come in from the cold.
Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Iranian politics in a period of crisis:
Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)
Dariush Zahedi & Omid Memarian, "Ahmadinejad, Iran and America"
(15 January 2007)
Ali Afshari & H Graham Underwood, "Iran's post-election balance" (22 January 2007)
Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)
Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran"
(1 March 2007)
Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United states: back from the brink"
(16 March 2007)
Sanam Vakil, "Iran's hostage politics"
(2 April 2007)
Andreas Malm & Shora Esmailian, "Iran: the hidden power"
(10 April 2007)
Nazenin Ansari, "Tehran's political dynamic: after the kidnap crisis"
(16 April 2007)
A dialogue for changeThe defusing of the twelve-day crisis over the seizure of fifteen British naval personnel in the Persian Gulf in March-April 2007 again highlighted the fact that Iran's ruling elite is seeking a pragmatic alternative to Ahmadinejad-style revolutionary showmanship. The outcome of the dispute is significant here: Ahmadinejad, who played no meaningful role in the sailors' release, was trumped into announcing it, and the reversal of hardline threats to prolong the standoff exposed the impotence of president and his allies in a politically deft way.
The western media misread the signals during this crisis. Iran's radical political factions could gather only about 200 Basij protesters outside the British embassy in Tehran (a city of 12 million people); there was no public appetite or political backing for embroiling Iran in an escalating international confrontation. It seems that here too, Ali Larijani was a key player in avoiding this danger.
Ahmadinejad did make the ceremonial phone-call to the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, on the morning of 29 April announcing Iran's participation in the Sharm al-Sheikh conference. But it is Larijani who visited Iraq to evaluate and set Iran's ground-rules for the summit; his schedule included meetings with al-Maliki himself and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Iran's efforts towards rapprochement with the US - notably the offer in 2003 to negotiate a "grand bargain" with the Bush administration - have frequently been rebuffed. But the strategic balance has shifted in Iran's favour in ways that make US rejection of this option today more problematic. The combination of the "war on terror", the crisis in Iraq and the war in Lebanon has helped raise Iran's influence in Shi'a-dominated Iraq and across the middle east.
Many of America's European allies, as well as voices in the United States - including the defence secretary Robert M Gates, a member of the Baker-Hamilton commission which advised engagement with Iran - seek a fresh start with Tehran. Sharm al-Sheikh presents America with the choice to begin to unfreeze relations. True, this would entail a major reversal of US foreign policy, but a rational calculation would suggest to the US that its own best interests lie in such a course. The US-based Iran experts Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh are among those who have consistently argued that the path of dialogue will bring about "a more pluralistic and responsible government in Tehran".
There are glimpses of light. The US Olympic committee - with the full blessing of the state department - has invited Iranian wrestlers to train in the US in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, "as part of an effort to increase US ties with the Iranian people". Perhaps "wrestling diplomacy" lacks the easy ring of the "ping-pong diplomacy" that opened the door to the historic reconciliation between the US and the People's Republic of China in the early 1970s. But it may be a more fitting analogy for the convoluted contest between Washington and Tehran.