U.S.-Iranian contacts seem increasingly possible. Officially, Tehran says it will only talk with Washington once the United States has set a date for withdrawing its troops from Iraq. But behind the scenes, Iranian officials seem eager for dialogue.
Iran holds elections Friday for city councils and clerical members of the Assembly of Experts, a body that can determine who will be Supreme Leader.
And just as there are discussions in this country about whether to talk to Iran, there is debate in Iran about whether to talk to the United States.
Iranian political leaders and analysts follow developments in the United States with rapt concentration — far more carefully, it seems, than do American leaders when it comes to watching the political situation in Iran.
The Iranians are well aware of the results of November's Congressional elections, and of the conclusions of the Baker-Hamilton study, which recommends direct engagement with Iran over Iraq. They see recent developments as weakening President Bush, and some in Iran are inclined to take advantage of that.
Iranian conservatives look upon the U.S. military force in Iraq as a potential direct threat to the national security of Iran. But at the same time, they believe the United States is bogged down and trapped in Iraq — and needs Iran's help.
So Iran ought to extract a high price, says columnist Amir Mohebian.
"They should remove their dangerous forces against Iran in this region," Mohebian says. "And I think in a good situation, we can have a kind of conversation with each other. But actually, we think the United States only wants to have conversation only for conversation, not for results."
But other Iranians understand that if the Bush administration decides to engage Iran, Tehran will not be able to establish its own preconditions for talks.
At the same time, Iranian analysts — both conservative and liberal — do not agree with frequent American assertions that Iran is interested in prolonging the chaos in Iraq. The more complex view is that engagement with the United States could be beneficial for Iran, because American and Iranian goals in Iraq are quite similar.
That's the view of Nasser Hadian, political science professor at Tehran University.
"Iran has a lot of interest to see Iraq is stable, territorial integrity of Iraq is intact, and there is a friendly government there," Hadian says. "Thus, Iran is very much interested to see a stable Iraq, and in that regard, their interest is not different from the U.S."
And so some analysts think that Iran is actually eager to have substantive talks with the United States. Saeed Laylaz, a political analyst who has known President Ahmadinejad for a decade, believes that all of Iran's senior leaders want to begin negotiations, especially the Iranian president.
"I believe he is actually impatient for this," Laylaz says. "He is much, much more eager than everybody else to establish negotiation and relationship with the United States, through publishing the two letters, through sending a lot of messages, publicly or privately, to the West."
Earlier this year, Ahmadinejad sent a letter to President Bush, a kind of religious and political lecture. And last month, the Iranian president released an open letter to the American people. The letters were not taken seriously in the White House and were largely ignored by the news media.
Ahmadinejad's frequent invective against Israel; his denial of the Holocaust; his public disdain for the United States; and Iran's continuing work on uranium enrichment all combine to make engagement with Iran seem all but impossible for the Bush administration.
But Laylaz argues that the United States would benefit from looking past the tone, and the unpleasant public rhetoric, of Iranian leaders.
"If the United States allows to have better ties or at least start strategic negotiation with Tehran," Laylaz says, "absolutely, the opinion of Tehran about the United States will be better. And be sure that this is in benefit of the Islamic Republic of Iran to see a quiet and secular regime in Iraq."