U.S. congressional Democrats, who will control the House of Representatives and Senate beginning in January, are calling on the Bush administration to hold direct talks with Iran about its nuclear program and its neighbor, Iraq.
Democrats in the House and Senate favor bilateral U.S.-Iran talks, arguing that the discussions could lead to a calming of the situation in Iraq and a halt to Iran's uranium enrichment program.
The incoming chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, and of the House International Relations Committee, Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos of California, both favor this approach.
Senator Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, renewed the appeal to the Bush administration in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday:
"When it comes to protecting our security, we must be as willing to wage diplomacy as we have been willing to wage war,” said Mr. Dodd. “Robust, muscular and direct negotiations are not gifts to our enemies. These are essential tools of avoiding conflict and securing peace and security."
The United States believes Iran is helping fuel the insurgency in Iraq, and says its nuclear program is aimed at producing bombs. Tehran denies it has had a role in the violence in Iraq, and says its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful energy purposes.
The State Department's senior coordinator for Iraq, David Satterfield, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday that the United States is not opposed to holding direct talks with Iran.
"We are prepared, in principle, to discuss Iranian activities in Iraq,” he said. “The timing of such a direct dialogue is one that we still have under review."
At the State Department, a spokesman said Satterfield was not expressing a change of policy. The Bush administration maintains it would be willing to talk to Iran, but only after it suspends its nuclear program - a policy Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated as recently as Tuesday, en route to Hanoi.
But even if Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and Washington opened talks with Tehran, some experts are skeptical about the usefulness of such discussions.
Former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey offered his opinion at a forum on Iran on Capitol Hill.
"They might well talk, they might well promise, but if they do promise they will lie, and they will continue to work on their nuclear weapons program and continue to try to destabilize Iraq," he said.
Woolsey estimates that Iran could produce what he calls a "primitive" nuclear weapon within the next three years.
The United States and its European allies are negotiating with Russia and China about a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would impose sanctions on Iran for failing to meet an August 31 deadline for halting uranium enrichment.