He was supposed to sit across from her at the dinner table. Everyone was waiting to see if they would start a conversation.

But Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki left the diplomatic dinner in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, before Condoleezza Rice got there. "I'm not given to chasing anyone," said the U.S. secretary of state when asked if she felt stood up.

Thus ended the latest chapter of the ongoing saga of whether Iran and the United States will talk.

This isn't the end of the story. Iran and top Bush officials have openly signaled their interest in dialogue. The European Union's top foreign-policy official, Javier Solana - point man for multilateral talks on Iran's nuclear program - says "the United States must engage" directly with Iran. Top Iraqi leaders say the same.

Yet, disputes within the administration still block serious talks. Vice President Cheney and his circle want Iran regime change, not engagement. Rice understands the need for talks, but wants to keep them narrowly focused - on issues such as Iranian arms for Iraqi militias.

"They are taking very limited baby steps," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. Without some broader strategy for U.S.-Iran dialogue, Parsi doesn't think such talks can go anywhere.

I agree. So here are four reasons the White House should start a strategic dialogue with Iran.

First, neither talks nor diplomacy means capitulation. I get e-mail equating dialogue with Iran to Neville Chamberlain's pact at Munich. Nonsense. Reagan talked to the Kremlin, and Nixon went to China. Talks mean both sides put their interests on the table and discuss them directly. They may or may not reach agreement. Talks don't mean America endorses the nature of Iran's regime, or its human rights violations against students, women or workers.

Iran has rebuffed U.S. efforts in the past for direct contacts, and we have done likewise. But the issues at hand - Iran's nuclear program, its role in the region, and Iraq's future - require us to try again.

Second, if America wants to prevent Iran from getting the capacity for nuclear weapons, the best option is smart, tough diplomacy. Various formulas offer some hope of limiting Iran's program. They cannot be fully explored unless we talk directly to Iran, alongside multilateral negotiations.

The alternative - bombing Iran's nuclear-energy sites - would strengthen Tehran's hard-liners and Islamists worldwide; it would ensure that Iran pursued a bomb.

Third, Washington's interests in Iraq coincide more with Tehran's than with those of any other Middle Eastern country. Iran's Shiites back the elected Shiite-led Iraqi government; Sunni Arab states in the region yearn for the return to power of Iraq's Sunni minority.

Iran is making trouble for U.S. soldiers in Iraq because the United States has called for regime change in Tehran. We and the Iranians are playing tit-for-tat. We're still holding five Iranians we arrested in Erbil (which may be why Iran's foreign minister snubbed Rice). If the Tehran regime believed Washington no longer sought its ouster, we could work together to stabilize Iraq.

Fourth, despite the flaming rhetoric of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there is reason to think the time is ripe for talks. In 2001, Iran provided U.S. forces with crucial cooperation in stabilizing Afghanistan.

In 2003, Iran transmitted a proposal for a "grand bargain" to the State Department. The proposal agreed to consider ending aid to Palestinian opposition groups, and acting to limit Hezbollah to politics. Iran was also willing to discuss accepting the Saudi/Arab League proposal that called for recognition of Israel alongside a Palestinian state. In return, Iran wanted to discuss its desire for "full access to peaceful nuclear technology" and wanted to be dropped from the "axis of evil."

That proposal got short shrift from the Bush team. We will never know whether it had the full backing of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In 2003, the United States had a much stronger hand in the Middle East. The ouster of Iran's archenemy, Saddam Hussein, and the mess in Iraq, have made Iran far more powerful. No one can be certain a "grand bargain" is possible today.

But there is an open struggle going on inside Iran between pragmatists who want to bargain and hard-line radicals led by Ahmadinejad. "There is a new discourse between those who want normalization [with the West and the United States] and those who want to retain tension and revolutionary fervor," says Hooshang Amirahmadi. He is an Iranian American professor at Rutgers who played a key role in back-channel discussions that laid the ground for the Iranian proposals of 2003.

In the Iranian system, Ahmadinejad is not the key maker of foreign policy - that is Khamenei. This is a moment when America needs to explore Iran's intentions, to see whether Iran is finally ready to play by accepted international rules. That would require the White House to stop dreaming of regime change, and put all issues on the table. It would require a whole new U.S. strategic approach to the region.

The venue for talks - Sharm el-Sheikh, whatever - doesn't matter. What matters is the political will.