In an interview with the Rahbord (Strategy) periodical, published by the Center for Strategic Studies, Iran's powerful former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said the two decade-long freeze on relations between Iran and the United States could be resolved either through a popular vote or a decision by Iran's arbitration body, the Expediency Council.
"One solution is to hold a referendum to see what the society says provided the Majlis (parliament) approves it and then it is accepted by the supreme leader," Rafsanjani, who heads the council, was quoted as saying.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the supreme leader of Iran, the most senior cleric in the religious state.
"The other solution is that the problem is referred to us (the Expediency Council) and we discuss it and announce what is expedient. Of course, the leader should approve this too," he further said, adding that is usually the case.
Rafsanjani's comments, particularly his references to the role of the Expediency Council, suggested Iran's leadership may be ready to crack open the door to relations with the United States.
The Expediency Council arbitrates in disputes between Iran's two main governmental bodies, the legislative Majlis and the watchdog Guardian Council. The latter reviews parliamentary bills to ensure they comply with both Iran's constitution and Islam's Sharia law. The traditionally conservative Guardian Council thus wields substantial power over the elected government.
"When an issue turns into a problem, it is referred to the (Expediency) Council to make a decision on that," Rafsanjani explained.
The United States and Iran cut diplomatic ties in April 1980 after militant Islamic students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and held 52 staffers hostage for 444 days. The Algiers accord, signed in late 1980 between the two countries, detailed the conditions under which the hostages were released.
Subsequent attempts at rapprochement have failed, however. Tehran resents U.S. support for Israel; Washington, in turn, alleges Tehran backs militant Palestinian groups that hinder the Middle East peace process.
U.S. President George W. Bush dubbed the Islamic republic, and pointedly "its unelected few," as part of an "axis of evil" that tries to develop weapons of mass destruction. Tehran has repeatedly denied the accusation.
Diplomatic sources, however, say that direct U.S.-Iran contacts have taken place in recent years, particularly over the crises in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and most recently Iraq. Tehran nevertheless eyes with concern the build-up of American military presence in the region from Central Asia to the Gulf states.
In the same interview, Rafsanjani alluded to the possibility of restoring ties as well with Egypt. Iran cut off relations with Egypt in the late 1970s after then-president Anwar Sadat signed an agreement with Israel that led to relations between Arab Egypt and the Jewish state. Cairo also received the ailing Mohammed Reza Pahlavi after Iran's fundamentalist movement deposed the autocratic shah from the throne in 1979.
In 2000, the presidents of Iran and Egypt, Mohammad Khatami and Hosni Mubarak, spoke by telephone for the first time. However, in January IRNA reported Iran's foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, as saying: "Ties with Egypt are not on our agenda at all."