Talking in the Gulf

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TEHRAN: Too good to be true? Curiously co-incidental detentes may be breaking out between the U.S. and its Persian Gulf bugaboos, Iran and Iraq. To wit: Iranian President Mohammed Khatami says he wants to talk — and according to TIME Middle East correspondent Scott MacLeod, it's a genuine offer. Meanwhile Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz is embroiled in potentially positive discussions with Richard Butler, chief U.N. weapons inspector, over opening up more sites to inspectors of all nations — even American ones.

So there's a lot of talk, and a lot of talk about talking. Will any of it get anywhere? The Pentagon remains skeptical about how far the relatively new and moderate Khatami can go with his olive branch, given the entrenched opposition of Iran's hard-line ruling clergy. "To succeed," says MacLeod, "Khatami has to overcome hardliners within the Iranian system, and hawkish elements in the U.S. who oppose any rapprochement with Tehran." But he's already come a long way. Who'd have thought we'd ever hear "I take this opportunity to pay my respects to the great American people" from an Iranian leader? Sure makes a difference from "Great Satan," a favorite of Khatami's predecessors.

As for Butler and Aziz, the first time the two sides have sat down to talk weapons since last month's standoff is progress in itself. The U.N. chief says we'll know in the next couple of days whether Iraq will consent to having its 60-odd palatial compounds inspected. Peace in the Gulf — just in time for the holidays?