If this was supposed to be the spring thaw in the chilly relationship between Iran and the US, it was a short season.
The top diplomats from both nations circled one another for two days during an international conference here, but passed up what would have been the first public, high-level, face-to-face talks since the US broke off relations over the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.
Both nations had sounded interested -- even eager -- to improve on nearly three decades of name-calling and accusations. US diplomats had pointed to the seaside conference about Iraq's future as a possible opening, and Iran's hardline president welcomed talks.
In the end, neither US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice nor her Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, wanted to make the first move. The only direct US-Iran contact came in a casual chat between the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi.
"You can ask him why he didn't make an effort," Rice told reporters on Friday. "I'm not given to chasing anyone."
Neither side had expressly asked for a meeting between the two chief diplomats, although conference host Egypt worked hard to throw them together at a series of cozy meals. The hope, diplomats watching the drama said, was that one party might accidentally on purpose chat up the other. Kind of like a junior high dance, but with better food.
Mottaki, speaking on Friday as Rice left Sharm el-Sheik, said there was no time during the conference to meet Rice. He said planning and political will on both sides was needed for a substantive meeting.
"It should be clear what we are trying to get from the meeting, what are we going to discuss," he said. "Such meetings should not be something theatrical. They should be substantive."
The White House expressed no disappointment at the missed opportunity. US President George W. Bush specifically asked Rice to talk with the Syrians, because the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested it, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. He didn't tell her to talk to the Iranians, Perino said.
"If the opportunity would have presented itself to meet with the Iranians as well, I think that the secretary would have been pleased to talk with them," she said. "It didn't. But that doesn't mean that we didn't have any contact with them."
Crocker and David Satterfield, the US-Iraq coordinator, did have a three-minute chat with Iran's Araghchi and talked about Iraq, said Crocker, who played down the conference hall encounter.
Rand Corp foreign policy analyst and former diplomat James Dobbins compared the US and Iran to Alphonse and Gaston, the 19th century cartoon bumblers who made an absurd show of courtesy.
"You first, I insist," one would say to the other. "No, you first," the second would respond with a grandiose bow.
"Apparently neither was willing to become the demander in that process, lest it be rebuffed or made to appear the weaker," Dobbins said.
As such, the Iraq conference may have demonstrated the limits of the Bush administration's new willingness to hold its nose and negotiate, or at least meet face to face, with its adversaries. Rice did sit down for a face-to-face with Syria's top diplomat, after two years of the cold shoulder from Washington.
Often criticized for a go-it-alone style that many other nations read as hubris, the administration is also talking directly with North Korea, which Bush famously linked with Iran and pre-invasion Iraq as an "axis of evil."
Until this spring, the administration resisted the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's recommendation for a similar conference and dismissed the calls from that panel and others for an outreach to Iran and Syria.
Bush and Rice had said those nations knew what they should do to help in Iraq and did not need the US' encouragement. US officials also said the price of negotiation would be too high.
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