NBC News and news services
updated 11/23/2004 7:11:26 AM ET 2004-11-23T12:11:26

In what U.S. officials insisted was an unexpected quirk of the seating arrangements, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell found himself sitting side-by-side with his Iranian counterpart here on Monday night for what turned out to be the most extensive, high-level contact between the two countries in decades.

Powell said he exchanged “polite dinner conversation” with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi when he was seated between the Iranian and Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari during a high-level diplomatic dinner at this Egyptian resort.

A senior State Department official said that Powell did not know the seating arrangements in advance and had not asked to be seated beside the Iranian.

Substantive issues such as the nuclear crisis and Iraq are not considered “polite conversation,” the spokesman said.

Iran and the United States, which are locked in a crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program, do not have diplomatic relations but occasionally over the past few years their senior envoys have crossed paths at international meetings.

The Bush administration has been under pressure from many in the U.S. foreign policy establishment to begin a dialogue with Tehran but it has been divided over whether and to what degree it might reach out.

Handshake in 2001
In November 2001, Powell took the opportunity of a post-Sept. 11 meeting on Afghanistan to shake hands with Kharrazi at the United Nations in New York.

Powell has since attended two international donor meetings attended by Iranian diplomats, according to U.S. officials.

Any gesture towards Iran at the Iraq meeting would be modest, U.S. officials said before the meeting.

The United States has not had formal diplomatic relations with the Islamic republic since a hostage crisis more than two decades ago. It has had only intermittent contacts since then, despite Tehran’s growing ability to thwart some of Washington’s major objectives, such as stability in Iraq.

In the days leading up to the conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Powell played down the possibility of a meeting to discuss bilateral issues. He also angered Iran with new accusations that it was seeking to adapt its missiles to carry a nuclear warhead.

But Powell, whose cautious support of European nuclear negotiations with Iran faces opposition from some Bush administration hawks, noted there would be conference social events and that he was “not a discourteous man.”

The encounter came on the same day as Iran suspended sensitive nuclear activities that could be used to make a bomb in a move likely to thwart U.S. efforts to report it to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

The United States accuses oil-rich Iran of pursuing a nuclear bomb and has vowed to stop it achieving that goal. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and only to generate power.

NBC's Tammy Kupperman and Reuters contributed to this report.

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