The statements emerging from both Tehran and Washington over the weekend went far beyond trial balloons: Both sides are interested in talking (the American version) or negotiating (the Iranian version) about Iraq's future. This is not, as the Americans claim, because Iran wants to divert the threat of Security Council sanctions, nor does it signal a softening of Washington's stance on Iran's nuclear program. Rather, both sides understand that Iraq is their greatest short-term strategic threat: Iran wants a functioning Iraqi government that will make the country a nonthreatening neighbor, and Washington needs a functioning Iraqi government in order to start withdrawing American forces.

Iran needs Washington's help to achieve its goal, since the main issue is who will form the next government. There is growing opposition within Iraq to the current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and Washington would therefore prefer someone else. Ostensibly, Jaafari represents the entire religious Shi'ite bloc, which won the elections, but lacks enough seats to form a government. In fact, however, this bloc is divided: Jaafari is backed by his Dawa party, but SCIRI, the other main Shi'ite party, prefers its own candidate. Iran has good relations with both, but it understands that continued support for Jaafari could leave it backing the losing side. It is therefore willing to switch to SCIRI's candidate, but the latter will need U.S. backing to win - hence Iran's willingness to talk with Washington.

Washington, for its part, wants Iran would stop supporting violent opposition groups and assist in solving Iraq's civilian problems, especially its chronic electricity shortages.

This conjunction of interests is similar to that created by September 11 and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Then, too, Iranian and American officials met in Switzerland, and Iran offered logistical support, arrested Al-Qaida members and even gathered intelligence on the Taliban. The talks continued even after President George W. Bush defined Iran as part of the Axis of Evil, and according to American intelligence officials, Iran provided important assistance against the Taliban.

Now as then, however, the common interest in Iraq seems unlikely to prevent continued disagreements over other issues, such as Iran's nuclear program. So Tehran and Washington will continue to joust over the latter even as they cooperate on the former.