“That wasn’t a date…”

Did they shake hands?  Did they chat?  Was there a peck on the cheek?  As with all first dates, it depends on who you talk to.

The New York Times reported that a pair of top diplomats from the U.S. and Iran had a polite chat at an international conference on Afghanistan this Tuesday.  According to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

“It was cordial, unplanned and they agreed to stay in touch,” Mrs. Clinton said to reporters at the end of the conference. “I myself did not have any direct contact with the Iranian delegation.”

But not so fast.  As the BBC later reported, an Iranian government spokesperson denied the whole thing:

“No meeting or talk, be it formal or informal, official or unofficial between Iran and US officials took place on the sideline of this conference…We categorically deny the reports published in this regard.”

One thing is for sure.  The delicate dance has begun.

What this probably comes down to is presidential politics.  We just chose our new president.  The Iranians are beginning the process of selecting theirs.  Apparently, it is as important for Iranian conservatives to maintain some level of hostility to the U.S. as it has been for U.S. conservatives to criticize Iran.

Remember all the conservative brouhaha over whether or not candidate Obama was wrong to say he’d meet with Iranian leaders?  Well, conservatives in Iran may also want to make sure that all this talk of talk doesn’t undermine their hold on the Iranian presidency.

Even though Iran’s political system isn’t an open democracy, it isn’t completely authoritarian either.  It is true that Iranian candidates for office must be approved by the Guardian Council, which ultimately means that the Ayatollah can prevent many critics from becoming viable political threats to the Islamic Republic’s current power structure.

But that doesn’t mean that the Iranian presidential elections are a trivial matter.

Reformers who have enough mainstream support can still get approved to run for office, as long as they don’t criticize the fundamental rules of the Islamic Republic.   That means that the “wrong” reformer can pose a significant challenge to a hardline candidate.

Whatever the country, nationalist conservatives frequently depend on the specter of an external threat to rally the electoral base.  It was true of former U.S. President George W. Bush, and it seems to be true of the current Iranian administration as well.  That’s probably why, according to the Iranian government, the recent chit-chat between the U.S. and Iran never happened.

Thus, the Obama Administration may be getting a dual benefit from its efforts to sound nice.  First, the U.S. can make a more rapid exit from Afghanistan if it has Iran’s support and involvement.  Iran’s Shia government and society have an inherent interest in the country next door that was once run by a hostile Saudi-backed Sunni Taliban regime.

At the same time, the U.S. also gets to make internal Iranian politics more difficult for nationalist hardliners by denying them the active image of a “Great Satan” belligerent world superpower.  If you can’t talk about the enemy outside, you are stuck with defending your record on unemployment and other domestic Iranian issues.

Who knew sounding nice could be so realpolitik?

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