US Undersecretary of State William Burns is heading the American delegation at the first such high-level talks since President Barack Obama took office on promises to pursue dialogue with Tehran. Unlike the last such meeting in July 2008 – held during the final months of George W. Bush's presidency – Mr. Burns has been given authority to engage the Iranians directly in what is expected to be a one-day affair, but could extend through Friday.
But Iran's domestic political scene has changed dramatically since the disputed June 12 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which sparked the biggest mass protests since the early years of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. The bloody crackdown that followed left 72 dead, according to an opposition count, and thousands imprisoned.
The postelection conflict – and accusations of fraud and torture and rape in prison – has exposed deep divisions among Iran's political elite, and raised unresolved questions for many Iranians about the legitimacy of the regime.
The opposition, led by the defeated candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, has decried Stalin-style show trials of scores of its top supporters, which have aimed to prove that Iran was the target of a "velvet revolution" backed by the US, Britain, and Israel to bring down the Islamic Republic.
The violence has weakened Iran's hand in any negotiations, analysts say, and lowered expectations that Obama's two letters to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – along with an overture to the Iranian people last March – will bear much fruit now.
"There's no sense that the Iranian team has the cohesion or confidence to make any kind of deal," says a US official in the region with knowledge of the negotiations. "Most people are prejudging that it's not going to go anywhere."
'An opportunity and a test'