Breaking the Silence

The U.S. and Iran have come a long way since 1979, when Iranian revolutionary students invaded the U.S. Embassy and took the staff hostage. That precipitated 27 years of diplomatic freeze-out by the U.S. -- otherwise known as the Great Satan, in the words of Iran's then leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Today an American diplomat -- Baghdad ambassador Ryan Crocker -- sat down with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, and they drank tea together. It was the first official talks between the two countries since the hostage crisis.

The business was serious, and according to an Iraqi official who attended the talks throughout, the discussions at times were "brutally frank." The U.S. envoy charged Iran with supplying explosives and ammunition to militias fighting in Iraq. Of particular concern are the sophisticated roadside bombs called Explosively Formed Penetrators, or EFPs, which fire a molten stream of copper that penetrates the thickest armor and has been responsible for the death of many U.S. soldiers. U.S. commanders believe Iran is supplying EFPs to Shiite and Sunni insurgents.

The Iranian ambassador denied the charges, and said his country only wanted peace and security in Iraq. To that end he suggested a trilateral security commission of the U.S., Iran and Iraq, and proposed Iran help train Iraqi security forces. The U.S. and Iraq were taken by surprise by this, and Crocker said that would be a decision to be made in Washington. The U.S. is not used to Iran offering to help in Iraq -- and would likely be suspicious of Teheran's motives.

But behind the cautious maneuvering of the two long-term foes, feeling each other out in the midst of a bloody war, there was a shared realization that it is time for the U.S. and Iran to start talking seriously to each other. It is in neither country's interest to see Iraq break down into all out civil war, nor do the U.S. and Iran want to end up in direct conflict with each other.

Future talks will not be easy -- there are a host of other issues, not the least of which is Iran's controversial nuclear program, which bedevil US-Iranian relations. But as Dr Mowaffak Rubaie, the Iraqi National Security adviser who chaired the talks said, "Today the US and Iran broke the ice. Now at least they have opened a channel of communication." It remains to be seen where that communication leads.