President Bush said Tuesday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might have one-on-one talks with Iranian leaders at an international conference on Iraq next month, but that Tehran's nuclear program would not be on the table.
In an interview, Bush initially appeared to rule out any contact with Iran, a member of his "axis of evil."
"What I'm not willing to do is sit down bilaterally with the Iranians," he told PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show."
Later, he said Rice and Iran's foreign minister might have bilateral conversations at the conference. "They could. They could," Bush said.
Diplomatic spring thaw
The United States cut diplomatic ties with Iran following the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Although there have been periodic diplomatic contacts, the Bush administration has resisted pressure at home and abroad to engage Iran one-on-one in an effort to improve security in neighboring Iraq.
That policy began to change this spring. Although it is not inviting a broad conversation, the administration has repeatedly said it will not rule out sideline talks with either Iran or Syria at the conference May 3-4 at Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
Such contact would follow the model established last month when lower-level State Department officials had cordial discussions with Iranian and Syrian diplomats.
It is not clear whether Iran will attend the May session, however, and State Department spokesman Sean McCormack seemed to lower expectations Tuesday.
"I don't foresee it," McCormack said in an interview, adding that he would not rule it out.
Bush said if a meeting occurs, Rice's message to the Iranians would be: "Don't send weapons in (to Iraq) that will end up hurting our troops, and help this young democracy survive."
Bush said that if he thought separate one-on-one discussions with the Iranians would convince them to give up their alleged nuclear weapons ambitions, he would consider the idea.
"I don't believe a discussion with Iran alone, and at this moment in time, would yield the result we want," Bush said.