TEHRAN, Iran – Iran dismissed American government reports that senior U.S. and Iran envoys had a cordial — and promising — face-to-face exchange at an international conference, saying Wednesday that no "talks" took place. The competing accounts of Tuesday's encounter in the Netherlands appeared to reflect the different approaches to overtures to end the United States' and Iran's nearly 30-year diplomat standoff.
Washington has seemed eager to build on President Barack Obama's surprise video message last month to seek engagement with Iran's ruling clerics. Iran has — in public, at least — been far cooler to making immediate contacts, but has not fully rejected some openings in the future.
Iran's take on The Hague conference was just as nuanced — not flatly denying that senior U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke and Iranian diplomat Mehdi Akhundzadeh met at a conference to discuss Afghanistan but concentrating on the semantics of whether official talks took place.
"Maybe this — the report on the meeting by the U.S. — indicates that the other party is hasty to take advantage of the conference," Akhundzadeh was quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
The statement noted that any exchange that occurred at the Afghanistan conference was not comparable with official talks, such as the ambassador-level meetings between the United States and Iran to discuss Iraq.
"Rest assured," IRNA quoted Akhundzadeh, Iran's deputy foreign minister, "that if there is a decision to have talks with U.S., like the talks on Iraq, all will be informed about it. There is nothing to hide."
In Washington, the State Department insisted Wednesday that Holbrooke met with the Iranian envoy. Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said there was a "brief handshake" on the edge of the conference — but stressed it was not a lengthy encounter.
"To describe it as substantive or even lengthy would be inaccurate, that is true. It was an engagement for Mr. Holbrooke," Duguid told reporters.
Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leilaz interpreted the Iranian response as trying to deflect any domestic suspicions of secret contacts.
The issue of outreach to Washington is particularly sensitive before the June 12 presidential elections. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is seeking another four-year term, is careful not to anger his hard-line base with the suggestion of a quick outreach to the Obama administration.
"Iran is carefully approaching the issue since confirmation of the meeting will have consequences inside Iran and the Islamic World. For more than one generation, Iran has portrayed the U.S. as the main enemy," he said. "Anti-American slogans by Iran will last for years even if the two countries resume ties."
Significantly, Tuesday's reported meeting took place in an international conference on Afghanistan — an issue many analysts believe is the most promising place to start in any thawing of U.S.-Iranian relations. Iran was a longtime foe of the Taliban and the two nations cooperated in 2001 in the initial U.S. invasion.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton described the encounter as encouraging but not "substantive."
"They agreed to stay in touch," Clinton said at the close of the conference on Afghan security and development on Tuesday.
Last month, Obama offered to begin "honest" talks with Iran's leaders in a clear break of past U.S. policy to shun the ruling clerics and encourage pro-Western dissidents in Iran. In response, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejected the overtures for a quick thaw in relations, but did not fully close the door on some future contacts, saying "should you change, our behavior will change, too."
The U.S. and Iran have been estranged for nearly 30 years, since young Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 Americans hostage for 444 days.
But envoys from both nations have met occasionally before for both formal talks — as with Iraq — and informal exchanges.
In 2007, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki exchanged only brief pleasantries at a conference in the Egyptian resort Sharm el-Sheik. Hopes for deeper contacts where dashed when Mottaki decided to skip a delegates' dinner, apparently objecting to the low-cut dress of a violinist and a bar within view of the VIP table.