For the first time since Iranians overthrew the shah and took 52 Americans hostage in Tehran in 1979, the United States and Iran plan face-to-face talks. They have much to discuss.
The first -- and, Washington insists, only -- topic on the agenda is Iraq. The United States accuses Shiite Iran of meddling and of helping the insurgents there improve their roadside bombs; that must stop. But Iran has interests, too, and proximity and history argue that peace will not come to Iraq without a solid understanding with Iran, a country that fought Iraq to a bloody eight-year stalemate in the 1980s.
Stability in Iraq is crucial to the United States, which wants to leave with an entrenched democracy in place, and Iran, which must remain uneasy with a civil war on its doorstep. Also apparent is the threat that Iraq's minority Sunni and majority Shiite militias in Iraq are learning techniques that could spread to the Persian Shiites Tehran rules.
Just holding direct talks could benefit Washington and political moderates in Iran. Hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad still portrays America as the "Great Satan," but his rants and volatility make powerful forces within Iran less reluctant to deal with the supposed devil.
Beyond Iraq is the issue of Iran's nuclear program, which Ahmadinejad has been using as a populist rallying cry. Other Iranian leaders, including reformists and many conservative clerics, now see direct talks as a step toward diplomatic rapprochement that could improve the economy and erode Ahmadinejad's appeal.
There's an unpromising start in President Bush's statement that America could use the talks to show Iran right from wrong and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's warning that bullying and deceit won't be tolerated. But if talks over Iraq can ease the insurgency threat, increase regional stability and send a message to the Islamic world that America seeks cooperation, good. Diplomacy and dialogue deserve a chance.