In the strongest gesture of reconciliation with the United States since the 1979 Islamic revolution overturned the U.S.-backed regime, President Mohammad Khatami praised Americans on Sunday.
"I take this opportunity to pay my respects to the great American people, and hope to have a dialogue with the American people and about the United States in the not too distant future," he said.
The offer could prove to be the moderate president's biggest gamble in his effort to steer Iran away from the influence of the hard-line clergy, which has been in power since the revolution.
In today's edition, the Washington Post quoted a senior Clinton administration official involved in U.S. policy toward Iran as saying the United States is ready for a dialogue.
"We're ready to sit down with them face to face, government to government, if it's authoritative. . . . If that's what he's talking about, it's a potentially positive statement," the official said.
A good word for the United States has been unheard of among Iranian leaders since the revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah and installed a clerical government led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The revolution-era slogan, "Death to America," still is taught in schools.
Khatami, whose comment came at a news conference in response to a question about whether he favored mending ties with the United States, did not say what form the dialogue should take.
Asked whether he would go beyond the American people and talk with their government, Khatami said: "The U.S. government is, after all, the U.S. government. It has been elected by the American people, and we respect that."
Sources close to Khatami said the president would deliver a similarly forward-looking speech intended for the American people for Christmas. Further details were not available.
The United States severed ties with Iran in 1979 after Islamic militants loyal to the revolutionary government stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
A resumption of U.S.-Iran ties is likely to be popular among Iranians who are tired of being cast as a pariah state by the United States and much of the West.
Although Khatami won by a landslide in May elections, his powers are limited. The final word rests with Iran's ultra-conservative spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini. He had opposed Khatami's election.
Khatami, who has lived in Germany and speaks German and some English, has not referred to the United States as "the Great Satan" since taking office in August.
Despite opposition from many Parliament members, he chose as his culture minister a man who had been condemned for advocating direct talks with the United States three years ago.
During his news conference, Khatami chided American politicians for falling behind the times, saying the world had changed but not Washington's policies.
Over the past few months, Khatami has loosened the strict social rules imposed by the Islamic government that regulate everything from how women can dress in public to whether Iranians can watch foreign TV programs.
Khatami also has begun mending Iran's relations with other countries. Last month, its strained ties with the European Union were normalized. On Sunday, Iran's ambassador to Germany invited the German government to better relations that have been troubled by terrorism accusations.
At an Islamic summit in Tehran last week, Khatami bolstered ties with Arab countries, which had soured after the revolution. He also opened a new chapter in links to Saudi Arabia, Washington's closest ally in the strategic Persian Gulf region.
"I think Mr. Khatami is the first Iranian president who can speak to the world. With him around, it won't be business as usual," Fereidoun Barkeshli, a political analyst at the state-run Institute for International Energy Studies, said in an interview.
Meanwhile, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported today that the United States and Iran have held a clandestine dialogue in Europe.
The newspaper cited an unnamed former senior official in the Clinton administration who was involved in setting up the talks as saying the meetings began shortly after Khatami was elected.