It seems that I may have underestimated the significance of the Iranian President's recent open letter to the Whitehouse. Until very recently, any contact at all with the US was viewed as taboo by the hardliners in the government, and the provocative, even at times offensive tone and content of the letter is perhaps best understood as an attempt to soften the blow domestically rather than increase it internationally. It seems to have worked: a number of leading conservative figures in Iran have publically endorsed the letter.
Now it has been followed, according to the Washington Post, by a request by the Iranian government for direct talks with their US counterparts over their nuclear programme; one European diplomat is even quoted as saying the Iranians are "desperate" to get around the negotiating table with "the Great Satan". This is clearly a significant ratcheting down of the level of rhetoric that we have seen before, and makes it appear that those analysts who insisted that the content of the letter was less significant than its return address were, in fact, correct: it now seems like it was an opening invitation to treat, regardless of how it was phrased.
So what has caused this volte-face? The Post suggests that it is fear of sanctions, coupled with strong Iranian public support for re-establishing some form of contact with the US. However, given the public stances of both Russia and China on the issue, official Security Council action seems some way off. Indeed, this move comes shortly after the Russian President Putin made his remarkable attack on the US, likening it to a "wolf" that simply "eats and listens to no-one"; and the Independent is today reporting Russia's increasing displeasure at US plans to build a range of bases in Europe to protect the West against any Iranian nuclear attack. Developments such as these seem to make concerted UN Security Council action much less likely; so why is Iran choosing now to make such, if not actaully conciliatory then at least potentially so, moves.
An unpleasant thought, certainly from the perspective of an international rule of law: is it less the immediate threat of sanctions, and more the knowledge of what the US is prepared to do if it can't bend the Security Council to its will? The Iranians may well come to feel that the checks and balances of the UN, however imperfect, are infinitely preferable to what the US has already shown it feels to be the only alternative to a paralysed Security Council.