Newspaper reports this morning are full of speculation that Washington is ready to go ahead with plans to send a small group of diplomats to staff a U.S. interest section in Tehran.
The British daily "The Guardian," says its sources -- which it does not reveal -- say the announcement will come "within the next month." It also says that State Department officials queried about the prospect of opening an interest section refused to confirm or deny the reports.
The U.S. daily "The New York Times" confirms that the idea of posting U.S. diplomats to Iran has been discussed but quotes some administration officials -- again unidentified -- as saying no decision has yet been made.
The press reports add to a sense of momentum around the prospect of a U.S. interest section that has also grown with positive signals from Tehran.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a reporter earlier this week that "we will receive favorably any action that will help to reinforce relations between the peoples."
He added, "We have not received any official request, but we think that the development of relations between the two peoples is something correct."
That mirrored a similar cautiously phrased feeler last month from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said: "We want more Iranians visiting the United States.... We are determined to reach out the Iranian people."
If a U.S. interest section were to open in Tehran, it would be the first return of diplomats since shortly after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It would not, however, constitute a restoration of diplomatic relations.
The United States and the Islamic republic broke off diplomatic ties after U.S. diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran in an early showdown between the two states.
Relations have been hostile since, with Tehran and Washington currently at odds over issues ranging from Iraq, to U.S. charges of Iranian state support of terrorist organizations targeting Israel, to Iran's nuclear program.
News reports quote U.S. administration officials as saying any U.S. diplomats returning to Iran would operate out of the Swiss Embassy, which currently represents U.S. interests in Tehran.
Officials also say privately that any U.S. interests section would engage in activities including issuing visas, so that Iranians would no longer have to go to the U.S. Embassy in Dubai for this purpose.
The sense of movement over establishing a U.S. interest section comes as Washington and Tehran are showing signs of closer engagement over the Iran nuclear crisis.
On July 19, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns will join negotiations to be held in Geneva that include Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China. The talks will be led by EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana and Iranian nuclear negotiator Said Jalili and focus upon Iran's response to the EU's latest incentives package to end uranium enrichment.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters on July 16 that Burns' presence does not signal a change in the U.S. position on the crisis.
"We want to solve this issue diplomatically. We seek to do so. We are going to continue to work with our international partners, in unison, which is what we are going to do on Saturday," Perino said. "But the fundamental, underlying principle is that there will not be any negotiations unless Iran suspends its enrichment of uranium."
Still, Burns will be the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat to directly join the negotiations over the Iran nuclear crisis. Analysts say the missing link in those talks has always been Iranian demands that Washington provide security guarantees as part of any Western incentives to end uranium enrichment.
Solana's spokeswoman, Christina Gallach, said this week that "we are very pleased by the [U.S.] administration's decision. She added: "It is a clear signal to the Iranians of the engagement of the United States and its commitment to a negotiated solution. At the same time, it is a clear message to the Iranians of the seriousness of this exercise."