Despite the traditional U.S. policy of "dual containment" of both Iran and Iraq, Washington has come to see Iran as a more stable and mature power in the region. With the Shiite Muslim population of southern Iraq being among the most important bases of internal opposition to Saddam, Iran's cooperation could be key to ensuring the stability of any change of regime in Baghdad -- Tehran plays host to the leading anti-Saddam guerrilla groups from the region. So Washington's strategic policy wonks may be hoping that the "dialogue between civilizations," however muted, eventually involves discussion of the future of Saddam Hussein.
The unlikely spectacle of Iran's President Mohammed Khatami conferring with Pope John Paul II Thursday may be significant for U.S. policy in the Gulf. "This is a major step forward for President Khatami's goal of normalizing relations with the West through his 'dialogue between civilizations,'" says TIME Middle East bureau chief Scott MacLeod. "Although officially relations between Washington and Tehran remain cool, the U.S. wants Iran's cooperation in efforts to overthrow Saddam Hussein."