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�In recent days, the signals from Iran and from the U.S. suggest that both nations may be willing to return to the negotiating table. This is something of a surprise, given the recent economic sanctions imposed on Iran and hostile remarks from both sides. Amid the tough talk, though, Washington and Tehran may be looking for an opportunity to engage in diplomacy. NPR's Mike Shuster has more.

MIKE SHUSTER: For much of the past spring, top U.S. officials were talking about imposing serious sanctions, sanctions that bite. Not long ago, Secretary of State Clinton even talked about imposing crippling sanctions on Iran.

In June, the UN Security Council adopted sanctions that were watered down, but then the U.S. and the European Union followed with punitive sanctions that, among other provisions, are putting serious pressure on Iran's banks.

In Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed the sanctions as no more threatening than a used piece of tissue. But behind the scenes, it appears that the Iranians are more concerned than they are letting on, according to Nader Hashemi, an Iran expert at the University of Denver.

Professor NADER HASHEMI (University of Denver): Now that sanctions have been passed and both sides are looking to the future, there is a sense that neither side will benefit from perpetuating this cycle of acrimony, tension, and conflict.

SHUSTER: A strong signal came last week from the State Department, where a spokesman said the U.S. is still interested in talking to Iran about a uranium swap deal, first floated last year, but never consummated. The U.S. took this deal off the table, but now it appears there is renewed interest.

That offer surfaced even as the periodic talk about the possibility that the US or Israel might attack Iran's nuclear facilities spiked upwards.

And then a quick positive response from Tehran. President Ahmadinejad sent his own signal, says Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University.

Professor HAMID DABASHI (Columbia University): As soon as the State Department made out that statement, Ahmadinejad went public, saying�that he welcomed the opportunity to have "a televised, man-to-man" - I'm quoting him - "televised man-to-man conversation with President Obama." So something is in the offing.

SHUSTER: Ahmadinejad's proposed debate came during a public speech covered by Iranian state TV.

President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: We are ready to sit down and hold talks with Mr. Obama, Ahmadinejad said. We have made plans to go to the United Nations toward the end of September. We are ready to sit down with Mr. Obama, face to face, man to man -free and in the presence of media - to put the issues of the world on the table.

Comments from administration officials suggest there is little interest in the vague proposal to discuss the issues of the world, nor is there much interest inside the administration in focusing on military action.

But there is interest in talking to Iran about the issues that confront the two nations. That was clear from comments Glyn Davies made earlier this week. Davies is the US ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

Mr. GLYN DAVIES (U.S. Ambassador, International Atomic Energy Agency): The important point to concentrate on now, is not military action, not, you know, does the United States or another country have plans for military action. The important thing to concentrate on now, is how do we find a way, peacefully, diplomatically, with engagement and mutual respect, to get Iran to begin to fulfill its obligations.

SHUSTER: It may be that the sanctions deserve the credit for moving Iran's government toward new talks. But more to the point, says Nader Hashemi, is that Iran's economy was in trouble long before it faced the most recent sanctions.

Mr. HASHEMI: The reality on the ground is that Iran's economic conditions and its future prospects look very bleak, indeed. All the indications are that Iran is headed for a major economic crisis of huge proportions that will affect the stability of the government, and the regime knows that.

SHUSTER: Still, earlier offers from Iran and the US to talk have amounted to very little. There's also the factor of Iran's domestic political opposition, which after more than a year of turmoil in the streets and challenges to the regime, has been beaten, for the moment, into submission.

Hamid Dabashi says it will be hard for the Obama administration to fashion any approach to Iran that leaders in Tehran won't exploit.

Mr. DABASHI: Whatever the United States and its allies do with the Islamic Republic will strengthen it. If they sanction and attack it militarily, they will strengthen it. If they sit down and negotiate, they will strengthen it.

SHUSTER: But for the moment, the Obama administration appears willing to take that risk for the sake of real diplomatic engagement.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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