Tehran, Iran Last week was an extraordinary week in Iran. Officials had been eager to tell an American journalist why there should be direct talks between Washington and Tehran.
The high walls around the former U.S. Embassy, whose staff was held hostage for a year after the Iranian revolution of 1979, are still covered with slogans like "Because they are the Great Satan we have never come close to America." The crowd at the main Friday prayers at Tehran University still chants, "Death to America, Death to Israel."
Yet the talk of Tehran - until things started going sour at midweek - was all about talks.
"Two months ago," I was told by Iranian analyst Saeed Laylaz, "if someone said we should start negotiations with the United States, they would have sent him to jail. Now, for the first time in over 20 years, the Islamic Republic is ready to start negotiations." Laylaz says Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei (who holds the real power) realizes that the standoff with America over the Iranian nuclear program "can be dangerous." So he "is looking for a channel" for dialogue with the Americans.
Some dismiss this push for talks as an Iranian ploy to sidetrack ongoing negotiations with France, Germany and Britain. The Europeans (known as the EU3) are trying to persuade the Iranians to freeze their suspect nuclear program in return for a package of carrots and sticks.
The Iranians insist they won't halt the program, which they claim is for energy purposes only. They say they can create a system of safeguards to ensure fissile material isn't diverted to weapons. Since they've cheated before, this response won't fly.
But what the Iranians propose to put on the table is intriguing. They say they want to talk about security guarantees in the Middle East for the United States.
"The main issue is the Iranian role in the region," says Javad Vaeidi, a key deputy to Ali Larijani, the chairman of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and a key player in the effort to start direct talks. Vaeidi notes that "the United States has many problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria" that Iran could help resolve.
In other words, if America recognized Iran's role as the new regional leader - effectively negating any idea of "regime change" - Iran could help America out in the region. "When Nixon went to China, this was good," Vaeidi told me. "America recognized China's regional power."
The problems with this scenario are many and obvious. Among them, it fails to put on the negotiating agenda the two security issues of most concern to the United States in the region: a freeze on Iran's uranium enrichment program until there is conclusive proof it isn't connected to a weapons program, and the failure to address Iran's inflammatory policy toward Israel.
Vaeidi insists that suspending Iran's program would mean "humiliation." He says: "Iran doesn't need the bomb. Now we have the power in the region. If we go to the bomb, we lose our power because the Saudis and Egypt would also get it." That claim is logical, but few in the West will believe it until the doubts about Iran's nuclear efforts are resolved.
Last Wednesday the White House ruled out direct talks on the nuclear issue until Iran halted enrichment; by Friday, Iran had suspended any plans for talks with the Americans on Iraq. As things were falling apart, I asked Vaeidi whether the idea of talks was dead. He said they weren't.
"When can we consider talks?" he asked angrily. "When the United States shows that they do not want a regime-change policy and convinces us they want to consider our rights and interests." Vaeidi's anger at the lack of American response also reflected the risk that he and Larijani run for breaking 27 years of anti-American taboos.
U.S. officials have argued that direct talks with Iran would undermine the EU3 negotiations, but the Europeans think they would help them. Talks don't mean appeasement or forgoing the possibility of sanctions - but they might force Iran's leaders to adopt a more realistic agenda.
Talks on Iraq could be a test for the two antagonists, perhaps leading to wider regional negotiations on security issues. Yet having proposed the Iraq talks, Washington postponed them, and now they are frozen.
Iran's overtures, however deficient, merit more than an unceremonious rebuff by the White House. Given that sanctions may not materialize or may not work, and given the risk of military strikes - the White House should respond in a more productive fashion. U.S.-Iranian talks may resolve nothing, but they are worth a try.