Recent days have seen a seeming change in the stances of Iran and the United States toward each other, causing observers to wonder whether the two avowed foes can hold direct talks.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday said his nation would shake the hand extended by the new U.S. administration if its overtures were honest.
His comments came as a response to U.S. President Barack Obama's recent message on the occasion of the Iranian New Year in which he announced a willingness to pursue "constructive ties" with Iran.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday noted that the United States would be a full participant with Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany in talks with Iran, a move that is viewed as a shift of U.S. Iran policy.
At first glance, Tehran and Washington seem to be actively signaling each other of its readiness for talks. Washington especially seems to be changing its policy on Iran. However, observers cautioned that it is still a big question whether the two countries will have face-to-face talks on Iran's nuclear issue.
SHIFT OF U.S. IRAN POLICY
Clinton's statement indicates what new changes in U.S.-Iran policy?
Britain, France and Germany, representing the European Union, since 2004 have held talks with Iran on the latter's nuclear program. So far, the talks have been going on and off for more than four years.
The Bush administration refused to take part in talks involving Iran on its nuclear issue, saying that Tehran had to first stop its uranium enrichment program.
The Obama administration, however, declared Wednesday that the United States would participate in the proposed talks with Iran and other five powers.
"On the nuclear issue, the United States remains committed to the G5+1 process. What is different is that the United States will join G5+1 discussions with Iran from now on," U.S. State Department acting spokesman Robert Wood told reporters Wednesday.
That means the Obama administration has changed its predecessor's policy and is willing to be a "full participant." What's more, the Obama administration made the change while Iran continues its nuclear enrichment activities, dropping the precondition set by the Bush White House.
The shift from shunning direct contacts with Iran to getting ready for face-to-face talks obviously marks some adjustment in U.S. Iran policy by the Obama administration.
However, as pointed out by some analysts, the adjustments are not fundamental. There is no sign that the Obama administration has gone beyond the thinking that Iran's nuclear program is linked to atomic weapon development, and there is absolutely no change in the hard-line U.S. policy of not allowing Tehran to possess nuclear weapons.
IRAN'S RESPONSES MIXING STRENGTH WITH GRACE
Compared to that of the United States, Iran's stance indicates a mixture of strength and grace.
"We are ready to hold talks with the West but these talks should be based on the principle of justice and equality and respect of Iran's (nuclear) rights," Ahmadinejad said at the ceremonial opening of a nuclear plant in central Iran on Thursday.
"One-sided negotiations, conditional negotiations, negotiations in an atmosphere of threat are not something that any free person would accept," he said.
The failure of past talks resulted from some countries' insistence that Iran should suspend its nuclear program, he said.
Iranian analysts said that Ahmadinejad's statement sent two messages: one is that Iran welcomes fair and just talks, and the other is that it wants real "sincerity" from the U.S.
To the Iranians, the talks should not only involve the nuclear issue but also should be extended to include Iranian-U.S. relations.
Iran expects a policy change in practice, not mere talk from the White House, Ahmadinejad said at a rally Wednesday.
DIRECT TALK REMAINS WILD CARD
In the wake of the recent statements from the two countries, the international community has been watching closely to see whether official talk between the United States and Iran would take place and if it does, whether it could lead to substantial results.
From the two countries' declaration of positions to actually sitting at the negotiating table, there is still a long way to go, according to analysts. Especially for the United States, it is hard to tell whether the country can present the "sincerity" asked by Iran. Therefore, it is very likely for the two sides to have flip-flops on their positions on holding talks.
In fact, the long-standing confrontation between the two sides lies in that Iran insists that its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes, while the United States holds that it will lead to nuclear weapons.
With such a lack of trust, it is hard to tell whether Iran will sit at the negotiating table with the United States.
On the other hand, the Obama administration's extending of carrots to Iran still smacks of being coupled with sticks.
In a TV interview, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that regarding Iran, "the opportunity for success is probably mor in economic sanctions in both places (Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) than it is in diplomacy."
Therefore, whether or when can the two countries have direct talks remains a wild card.