Talk might be cheap, but in the case of Iran, talk might lead to cheaper gas at the pump.
While certainly not the only reason for sky-high oil, tensions over Iran's nuclear program have helped fuel the surge in gas prices that is altering American lifestyles. The cost of a barrel of oil shot up nearly 8 percent in a single day in June after a senior Israeli official raised the specter of an attack on Iran.
But the price has dropped to $131 from a record $147, not only because Americans are driving less but because the Bush administration has finally decided to talk to Iran — sort of — instead of demanding that the country suspend its nuclear enrichment before any face-to-face negotiations.
It's "the most welcome flip-flop in U.S. diplomatic history,'' said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
This weekend, a top State Department official, William J. Burns, attended international talks in Geneva aimed at resolving the impasse over Iran's nuclear program. While the administration said Burns would not "negotiate,'' his presence was hailed as a sign that the White House is trying to avoid a war that, among other nightmares, could see Iran blocking the Strait of Hormuz, conduit for as much as 40 percent of the world's oil.
And in other evidence that U.S.-Iranian tensions are easing, a British newspaper reported that the United States plans to station diplomats in Iran for the first time since the 1979 Iranian revolution and ensuing hostage crisis. The "special interests section'' (similar to the one in Havana) would process visa applications and be a step toward opening an embassy and restoring full diplomatic relations.
The administration won't confirm the report, though sources say the idea is under strong consideration. And Iranian state TV has quoted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as saying Iran would welcome a U.S. diplomatic office in Iran.
Rice's pen pal
Why President Bush's apparent change of heart when just two months ago he told an Israeli audience that any direct talks with Iran would be akin to Nazi-era "appeasement''?
"There was a period of time during which the Bush administration rejected any diplomacy with Iran, and during that period the situation in (neighboring) Iraq degenerated and Iran started to get more powerful,'' says Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department policy adviser on Iran. "So it's very hard to see what not engaging Iran accomplished.''
For the past few years, the White House has largely left negotiations to its five partners — France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China — as they try a mix of carrots and sticks to get Iran to stop uranium enrichment that could be used to produce electricity, as Iran claims, or to fuel bombs, as Israel and the West fear. But without active U.S. participation, the Iranians are unlikely to take any proposal seriously.
Although Iran recently jangled nerves by test-firing a missile that could hit Tel Aviv, there have been recent signs it wants to avoid a military confrontation with Israel or the United States or both. According to the New York Times, a key factor in the decision to send Burns to Geneva this weekend was Iran's positive reaction to the fact Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a letter that was part of an incentive package presented by the six countries.
Iran's foreign minister responded with a letter addressed to Rice, seen as a gesture suggesting Iran's willingness to engage directly with the United States.
Time running out
Not everyone is enthused about talking to a country Bush once branded as "part of the axis of evil."
"It's further evidence of the administration's complete intellectual collapse,'' said John Bolton, the pugnacious former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who also blasted the decision to de-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terror.
Even with U.S. and Iranian officials sitting face-to-face in Geneva, don't expect volatile oil prices to drop quickly or permanently. (They rose a bit Friday because of a cut in output in Nigeria.) But Rice, in particular, is apparently pushing the administration to seize what might be a fleeting chance to talk to a more receptive Iran.
"The clock is ticking, Iran is steadily producing more and more (nuclear) material,'' says Maloney, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "There is a declining time frame if the administration has any hope of resolving the situation before passing this off to its successor.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com.