TEHRAN: Are the United States and Iran just flirting, or are they serious about patching up a relationship that ended in separation 24 years ago?
The resumption of an official US-Iran dialogue on specific issues, broken off by Washington last May, is probably the least that can be expected after the two arch-foes came together to help victims of the devastating Bam earthquake.
But a Washington proposal for a first public official visit to Iran by a senior US delegation for over 20 years looks like a non-starter and the prospect of restoring full ties severed by Washington in 1980 remains remote, analysts said.
"Iran-US relations are like two windows facing one another," said a political analyst who declined to be named. "Normally when one opens, the other is closed. Right now, both windows are ajar, but they're a long way from fully open."
A senior European diplomat in Tehran said Bam offered the two countries a chance to talk about long-standing problems. "But let's not forget that the problems haven't changed."
Efforts by moderate President Mohammad Khatami's reformist government to promote democracy inside the Islamic Republic and improve its relations with the West have been largely stymied by religious hardliners who control key levers of power such as the courts, military and constitutional oversight bodies.
Influential former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said on Thursday US relief aid for Bam and a limited sanctions waiver to speed donations may ease decades of mistrust.
RECIPROCAL MEASURES: Khatami's brother went further, saying the US response to Bam may lead to unspecified reciprocal measures.
"We're evaluating the US government's positive behaviour and I'm sure that goodwill will be answered with goodwill," deputy parliament speaker Mohammad Reza Khatami said.
US officials have said they may re-start talks with Iran held in Geneva in the run-up to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Washington halted the talks after accusing Tehran of harbouring Al Qaeda members behind bomb attacks in Saudi Arabia in May.
Friday's Washington Post reported that the United States approached Iran on Tuesday about sending a high-level humanitarian mission headed by Senator Elizabeth Dole and including an unspecified relative of President George W. Bush.
But informed sources in Tehran said Iran was about to reject the offer, which diplomats said was a step too far at this stage.
"The tricky thing is to carefully calibrate these moves," one Western diplomat said.
"You can't rush because that would scare hardliners in both countries who oppose any rapprochement. But you can't go too slow either because then you lose the momentum provided by Bam."
EMERGENCE OF THE DEAL-MAKER: While Bam provided the opportunity, it was Iran's decision last October to agree to snap inspections of its nuclear plants that sparked a change of thinking in Washington, analysts said.
The emergence of Supreme National Security Council chief Hassan Rohani - a moderate conservative said to have close ties to Rafsanjani - as the man who brokered the nuclear deal with Britain, Germany and France, "was a real eye-opener for Washington," the European diplomat said.
Unlike Libya, hailed by Washington last month for agreeing to scrap its nuclear weapons programme, Iran's complex political structure in which unelected hardliners wield far more power than the elected reformist government has meant there was no single decision-maker like Libya's Muammar Qadhafi to deal with.
"The Bush administration's Iran policy for the last two years has been to reach out a friendly hand to the Iranian people while snubbing the regime," said the senior political analyst.
"Last year they were saying that Iran's clerics were like a house of cards ready to fall, but that's just not true and now they're wondering whether they've found an authoritative counterpart to deal with on matters of fundamental importance."
The Libya model may be appealing to Iran's leadership too, particularly if it led to a removal of damaging US economic sanctions and a tacit agreement by Washington to allow Iran to run its internal affairs as it sees fit.
That could spell the end of the road for Khatami's reformists and may be unpalatable for Western nations concerned about Iran's human rights record.
But Washington is not about to ease up pressure on Iran. Bush - who in 2002 called Iran part of an "axis of evil" - on Thursday praised its willingness to allow in US humanitarian flights but urged Tehran to abandon nuclear weapons and turn over suspected Al Qaeda militants.
The White House also wants Tehran to stop backing Palestinian militants who attack Israel and support the transition to democracy in Iraq.
"Put all these elements together and it certainly doesn't look like a smooth scenario to me," said the analyst.-Reuters
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