If all goes well, the long-talked of talks over Iraq between the Islamic Republic and the United States are expected to open in Baghdad before the end of the month. Under current plans, the talks will take place at the level of ambassadors and away from the media limelight.
Is this start of the so-called "Grand Diplomatic Offensive", recommended by the Baker-Hamilton commission last year? Is the Bush administration adopting President Bill Clinton's ill-fated "Grand Bargain" strategy towards the Islamic Republic in Tehran? Or should we see the talks, as many Iraqis do, as an ominous sign that the US may give the Islamic Republic a real say in shaping the future of Iraq?
It is too early to answer any of these questions with any degree of certainty.
What is clear, however, is that the Islamic Republic sees the talks as a diversion from the one issue that preoccupies it most: international efforts aimed at preventing it from becoming a nuclear power.
Tehran may even be prepared to throw a few sops at the Americans as a sign of goodwill in an effort to prevent the passage of a third United Nations' Security Council resolution later this month. The Iranians may come to the talks with a few addresses of Sunni insurgents or even Al Qaeda operatives whom the Americans could then hunt down, producing some positive TV footage. Tehran may also reveal some secret border passages used by the insurgents to smuggle arms and men into Iraq.
The Americans may well turn out to be as cynical as the Iranians. The talks will deprive the so-called "Realists" of their sole "big idea" which consists of a claim that dialogue can develop into policy where none exists. James Baker and Lee Hamilton would love the exercises as a vindication of their own flawless judgment. Nancy Pelosi ad Michael Moore would love it because it can be presented as a sign that George W Bush has met his comeuppance. Condoleezza Rice, too would love it because the exercise confirms her belief that the conflict with the Islamic Republic is a mini-version of the Cold War that is best handled through détente.
Cynicism apart, the exercise may prove useful for quite other reasons.
In international life as in the lives of individuals, experience is often not transferable. It is no use reminding Ms Rice that almost all her predecessors tried to talk to the Islamic Republic, and failed. On the specific issue of Iraq, no amount of argument could persuade Ms Rice that what Iran wants in Iraq is incompatible with America's vision for a new Middle East.
Six years ago, President Bush decided to change the status quo in the Middle East because he saw the region as an area of darkness in which the forces of international terror could survive and multiply. In other words, American national security required an historic change in the Middle East, from ideology-based despotic regimes to people-based political structures.
And this is precisely not the kind of regime that the Islamic Republic would wish to see in any part of the Middle East. The idea that the Islamic Republic might help the United States implement the Bush Doctrine in Iraq is fanciful, to say the least.
The Islamic Republic, especially under the radical messianic leadership of President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad, is convinced that it is riding the crest of an historic wave. Moments after Washington announced it was entering the talks with Tehran, Ahmadinejad told a press conference during a visit to the United Arab Emirates that the threat of American military action against his regime was fading. His Foreign Minister Manuchehr Motakki tried to see the proposed talks as part of a grander scheme designed to speed up an American retreat first from Iraq and , then, from the Middle East as a whole.
The proposed talks come as a timely booster for Ahmadinejad whose administration is facing a deepening economic crisis. The crisis is in part prompted by widespread fears that his provocative policies may lead to a military confrontation with the United States and its regional allies. Ahmadinejad's opponents within the Khomeinist regime have used those fears as a key theme in their campaign to win control of the Islamic Majlis ( parliament) in the next general election, expected to take place in the spring of 2008.
Ahmadinejad, however, has always claimed that he knows how to " handle" the Americans.
"I know them better than themselves," he boasted just weeks after his election as president. "I have been studying the Americans for more than twenty years."
Ahmadinejad's key campaign theme against his opponents within the system is simple: people like former Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami underestimated the power of the Islamic Revolution and underestimated the power of the United States. Thus, they were prepared to offer concessions that were never necessary.
They key example that Ahmadinejad cites is Khatami's decision to accept a suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment program as part of a deal with the European Union. Ahmadinejad has resumed the program without provoking the much-dreaded American military retaliation.
Ahmadinejad believes that the only power with the potential to prevent the Islamic Republic from achieving is strategic goals is the United States. At the same time, he believes that the US is so plagued by its internecine political rivalries that it in no position to project the degree of power necessary to stop the Khomeinist advance. The best strategy for the Islamic Republic, therefore, is to talk to the US but continue doing exactly as it pleases.
The Baghdad talks will not produce any positive results either for Iraq or the United States. But they could help Ahmadinejad outflank his domestic opponents ahead of next year's elections. His message is clear: the Bush administration refused to talk to Khatami whose administration had adopted a conciliatory posture, but is now courting a genuinely revolutionary regime in Tehran. Conclusion: the US talks only to those prepared to kick it in the teeth!