FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER
Can we talk?
That's the burning question for both Iran and the United States, after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced this week he was ready for "an era of dialogue" based on mutual respect.
It follows an invitation from the new Obama administration, which is trying to draw the line after years of bitterness intensified when George W. Bush declared Iran part of the "axis of evil" in 2002.
On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama said he was "looking for areas where we can have constructive dialogue, where we can engage directly," adding that funding terrorist organizations or developing nuclear weapons was unacceptable.
But in another sign that the administration was prepared to offer carrots rather than sticks, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that Washington might abandon its planned missile-defence system in eastern Europe if Iran were to give up any move to build nuclear weapons.
The overtures are so far tentative and no meeting date has been set. But if dialogue were fruitful, experts say, it would amount to more than polite diplomacy – the beginning of a new strategic alignment in the volatile Middle East.
"This is huge," says Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States. "It's the equivalent of a geopolitical earthquake."
The changes needed to put the Iran-U.S. relationship on a firm footing would be sweeping.
The United States would have to radically alter its policies of isolating Iran, alienating its Arab neighbours from Tehran, supporting anti-regime groups within Iran, arming Iran's foes in the Middle East and demonstrating its military presence in the Persian Gulf.
Iran would have to lower its fiercely anti-Israel rhetoric, rethink its support for militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, which have attacked Israel, and arrive at a compromise that would reassure Washington it was not developing nuclear weapons.
Tehran's task may be the less difficult of the two, says Iran expert Houchang Hassan-Yari of the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston.
"In Iran, there are a number of groups against any kind of appeasement of the U.S.," he said.
"But there is also a consensus among reformers to engage, and conservatives of Ahmadinejad's type are in favour.
"It wouldn't be difficult for them to convince (supreme leader Ali) Khamenei to change direction."
But convincing Israel and its supporters in the United States – as well as nervous Arab countries that fear a muscular Iranian presence in the Mideast – would be more problematic for Obama.
Compounding the problem is an Iranian election in June, which will pit Ahmadinejad against reformist former president Mohammad Khatami.
Waiting for the outcome of the election would be a grave mistake, advises Kaveh Afrasiabi, former Tehran University professor and Iran watcher.
"Obama must seize the moment now, given the attitude in Tehran," Afrasiabi said. "When Khatami was in office, he didn't have the political backbone to strike a deal with Washington. But Ahmadinejad, with his support from the military and other institutions, can do that.
"He also has the confidence of the supreme leader, and a high probability of winning a second term."
Since Obama took office, he has emphasized the need for mending rather than deepening the fault lines between Iran and the West and its allies. But there are disagreements on how to engage Tehran without abandoning basic U.S. security requirements on one hand, or confronting it with demands that will result in immediate breakdown of communication.
Some advocate a low-key confidence-building approach, beginning with dialogue on common interests such as the stability of Afghanistan and Iraq.
But, warns Treacherous Alliance author Parsi: "That kind of tactical approach won't work. The Iranians have spelled it out. They're not looking to lower tensions tactically, while remaining in a hostile relationship. Talks have to begin with the end goal, and work backward from there."