A senior US diplomat will attend talks with Tehran's nuclear negotiator this Saturday, signalling a major policy shift. William Burns, the third highest-ranking diplomat in the State Department, will be present at talks in Switzerland on Saturday, fuelling speculation of a thaw in relations with Iran.
President George Bush's administration had made it clear in the past that a suspension of nuclear enrichment by Iran was a precondition of any negotiation.
While the US envoy will not have bilateral meetings with Tehran's nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, his presence signals a major policy shift. Jalili and EU foreign policy envoy Javier Solana are due to discuss a timetable for future negotiations to break the deadlock between the two sides.
The meeting was planned as part of efforts by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany, seek to reach agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme.
The United States has had no official contact with Tehran until now, and the meeting comes amid speculation that sanctions on Iran are beginning to have an effect. It also follows a series of missile tests by Iran which caused international concern. The recent war games featured the firing of an Iranian missile with a range which includes Israel.
Washington broke off relations with Tehran in 1980 following the Islamic revolution and the seizure of the US embassy.
Relations with the Islamic republic have become a big issue in the race for the White House, with Democratic candidate criticising Bush for not engaging directly with Iran, and urging diplomatic contact. The statement led to republican candidate John McCain branding Obama "naive".