In less than ten days after his inauguration as 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama has taken certain initiatives that indicate a departure from the policies of his Republican predecessor. He ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay prison facility, sent George Mitchell to the Middle East, announced the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan and expressed US willingness to engage Iran in direct dialogue. According to some reports the US officials have already held "discrete talks" with Iran to sound out Tehran for flexibility on issues ranging from nuclear proliferation, Middle East peace process and the Persian Gulf. These overtures have been supported by the US allies and cautiously welcomed by Iran. US-Iran relations had suffered a lot during the Bush administration due to the intransigent American position on the Iranian nuclear issue. At root was the last administration's mindset shaped by neocon doctrine that portrayed Iran as a hostile country calling it a member of axis of evil along with Syria and North Korea. However, US efforts to isolate Iran globally and regionally met with failure. Iran's economic and commercial relations with Pakistan, India, China, Japan and Russia witnessed a substantial growth and its role in the Middle East, especially in stabilizing the situation in Iraq has openly been recognized and appreciated. The security environment in West Asia would have been much better had the United States followed a policy of engagement with Iran instead of demonstrating hostility to the strategically located Islamic republic. In order to cover its own failures in Iraq, the United States levelled baseless allegations against Iran for sending arms to the insurgents. The fact of the matter is that Tehran showed great restraint on extremely provocative situation in Iraq despite devastative anti-Shiite bomb attacks in Baghdad and Karbala. In Afghanistan, Iran's assistance has played a critical role in the building of infrastructure and development of the country's economy. On both these issues, Iran's position has proved helpful to the achievement of US strategic goals. However, US hostility towards Iran continued unabated. The main area of US-Iran contention is, of course, Iran's uranium enrichment programme, which the United States alleges, is a covert attempt by Tehran to manufacture nuclear weapons. Iran is a signatory to nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has insisted that its nuclear programme is only for peaceful purposes. True, there are certain reservations about Iran's nuclear programme in the west, and these reservations arise from Iranian inability to provide satisfactory answers to some IAEA queries and allow international inspection of its nuclear installations. But, as Mohammad ElBaradei, DG IAEA said in a recent CNN interview, there are two aspects of Iran's nuclear question: one is technical and other is political. A stand off on technical aspect of the issue is understandable; but there should be no stalemate on the political front, which means that the move towards a direct and unconditional dialogue with Iran should be made without any delay. The policy of isolating Iran has not only failed, it has led to results exactly opposite to what were intended. Mr. ElBaradei gave the example of North Korea. In 1994, when talks with Pyongyang were abandoned, the communist country had no bomb; but ten years later it exploded the nuclear device. He strongly pleaded for opening up of communication channels with Tehran without conditions in order to establish trust and create an environment conducive to settling contentious issues. President Obama's statements made during the election campaign did emit strong signals that once in Whit House he would make a shift in Bush's position on Iran. Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State during the Clinton administration and also worked as advisor to Obama during his presidential campaign, had stated in an interview with Global Viewpoint in July 2008 that the lesson from North Korea was that the US should engage in direct talks with Iran to break the deadlock. "Barack Obama," she had said, believed, " we should talk to our enemies, to pursue direct and aggressive diplomacy with both North Korea and Iran." The current overtures towards Iran are based on a realistic assessment of US policy under Bush that led to a deadlock on the Iranian nuclear issue. But there are other developments that have warranted a shift in US Iran policy. The most significant factor is the fast deteriorating situation in Afghanistan as a result of sharp increase in the Taliban insurgency. Much before the presidential race began; the Democrats had indicated that in case their man was in the White House, they would focus more on Afghanistan and Pakistan for stabilizing the region that had become in the western lexicon an epicenter of terrorism. Alarmed over the worsening of situation in Afghanistan, the Americans are desperately looking for a strategy that could ensure the achievement of their goals in the country. The Americans are committed to raise the forces level in Afghanistan to more effectively counter the Taliban insurgency. In a decision made by the three most powerful men in the United States-President Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, the United States has ordered the despatch of three additional combat ready brigades to Afghanistan. Further troop movements into Afghanistan are likely to follow this step. The decision for this was made during the Bush administration. Barack Obama is not only likely to implement that decision, he is expected go much beyond that-to try to work out a political strategy that involves regional actors, especially Iran. The Americans are increasingly looking towards Iran to help, if not bail out, them in Afghanistan. Highly placed American officials have already advocated the involvement of Iran in the evolving strategy on Afghanistan in which Iran will play an important role. It should have been clear to the Americans much earlier that the only strategy that can work in bringing stability to Afghanistan is the regional strategy. Iran is an important component of this strategy because of geography, history, culture and a regime that has demonstrated a remarkable sense of pragmatism in normalizing its relations with neighbouring countries. Despite sharp differences between the US and Iran over a number of regional and global issues, there are some commonalities between the positions of the two on Afghanistan. Like the US Iran does not want the Taliban return to power. This can become a basis for a US-Iran joint move to work on the moderate Taliban for isolating Al-Qaeda and hard line Taliban in Afghanistan. But Iran is also wary about the prolonged stay of American and NATO forces in its neighbourhood. The heavy US military presence in Iraq and the Persian Gulf is already a source of tension between the US and Iran, the stationing of large number of American troops in Afghanistan on long-term basis may exacerbate the already tense situation between the two sides. This will increase and reinforce the mistrust between the US and Iran that has so far been the biggest stumbling bloc in the way of an understanding on the nuclear issue. The willingness expressed by Obama administration to engage in direct dialogue with Iran without prior conditions is an encouraging sign. No body expects an immediate breakthrough or a dramatic development on the nuclear issue; but it will certainly raise the prospects of an amicable settlement that takes into account the western concerns and the Iranian apprehensions about their security. It will also help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan which poses an increasing threat to regional security. The writer is Senior Research Fellow, Islamabad Policy Research Institute, Islamabad E-mail: