TEHRAN, Iran – Iran said Thursday it was prepared to talk directly with the United States about Iraq, a major shift for a country that has long avoided negotiations with what it calls the "Great Satan."
The offer appears to reflect the desire of at least some top Iranian officials to relieve Western pressure over Tehran's nuclear program in return for help on Iraq, which is sliding ominously toward civil war.
The Bush administration said it would talk with Iran -- but only about Iraq, not nuclear issues.
The White House said the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, is already authorized to talk with Iran about Iraq.
"But this is a very narrow mandate dealing specifically with issues relating to Iraq," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, adding that it did not include U.S. concerns about Iran's nuclear program. "That's a separate issue."
The secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, told reporters any talks between the United States and Iran would be limited to Iraqi issues. Larijani, who is also Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said Khalilzad had repeatedly invited Iran for talks on Iraq.
Despite the caveats, any direct dialogue between Tehran and Washington could be the beginning of negotiations between the two foes over Iran's nuclear program.
A Washington analyst on Iran, Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while talks would not go further than Iraq, their atmosphere "will spill over into every other area of contention between the United States and Iran."
Washington accuses Iran of trying to build nuclear weapons and is leading a campaign for U.N. Security Council action. Iran denies the allegation, but would like to avoid any penalties from the U.N. body, which is expected to discuss Iran's nuclear program this month.
The United States also accuses Iran of meddling in Iraqi politics and of sending weapons and men to support the insurgency.
"To resolve Iraqi issues, and to help the establishment of an independent and free government in Iraq, we agree to (talks with the United States)," Larijani told reporters after a closed meeting of parliament Thursday. He added that negotiators would be appointed for the talks, but declined to give further details.
His statement marked the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that Iran had officially proposed dialogue with the United States.
Analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international relations at Tehran's Imam Sadeq University, said Larijani's call was a genuine offer that could have significant consequences.
"This could be the beginning of a major breakthrough, ending more than two and a half decades of estrangement between Tehran and Washington," Bavand said.
He said some clerics within the ruling establishment are convinced Iran will be harmed by a head-on collision with the world over its nuclear activities.
How much support such views enjoy is unclear, but it is known that there are clerics who disagree with the foreign policy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who takes a hard line against dialogue with the United States.
Bavand said when Iran's nuclear program was reported to the U.N. Security Council last month, Russia and China sent messages to Iran saying that if it wanted a face-saving solution, it had to talk to America.
"Iran needs America to calm the growing tension over its nuclear program," Bavand said. At the same time, Washington wants to restore stability to Iraq, "and Iran has sufficient weight and influence to help it out."
Another political analyst, Saeed Leylaz, also said Tehran would be prepared to trade progress on Iraq with movement on the nuclear issue by Washington.
"Continued instability in Iraq is hampering America's plans for the Middle East. Iran is ready to use its Iraq card to protect its nuclear achievements before it is too late," Leylaz said.
The proposal to hold direct talks on Iraq came a day after the senior Iraqi Shiite politician, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, called for Iran-U.S. talks.
"I demand the leadership in Iran to open a clear dialogue with America about Iraq," said al-Hakim, who has close ties with Iran. "It is in the interests of the Iraqi people that such dialogue is opened and reaches an understanding on various issues."
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently accused Iranian Revolutionary Guards of assisting the smuggling of explosives and bomb-making material into Iraq.
Iran denied it, saying the occupying forces were responsible for the instability in Iraq.
But Iran has expressed grave concern about the violence in Iraq, where sectarian fighting and reprisal killings have escalated recently.
The United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1979 after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized by students to protest Washington's refusal to hand over Iran's former monarch for trial. The militants held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Tehran-Washington relations began thawing after the 1997 election of former President Mohammad Khatami, who called for cultural and athletic exchanges to help bring down the wall of mistrust between both countries.
But relations worsened after President Bush named Iran as part of an "axis of evil."
Nevertheless, Iran supported the reconstruction process in Afghanistan after U.S.-supported forces ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001. It also took part in the international agreement signed in Germany that mapped out Afghanistan's transition to democracy.