Shimmering on the horizon of the otherwise dark landscape of Iran's stand-off with the West over its uranium enrichment programme were reports yesterday that Tehran and Washington had secretly agreed to hold direct negotiations after the US elections.
Any agreement in principle for face-to-face talks could rekindle hopes that diplomatic efforts may yet provide a solution and avert the only reasonable alternative: military strikes by Israel, probably with American support, and possible war.
As ever, however, the Iran dossier – arguably the most important of all foreign relations issues now confronting western capitals and a certain focus of tonight's foreign policy debate between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney – remains shrouded in murk. No sooner had the agreement on bilateral US-Iran talks been reported by yesterday's New York Times than both sides were saying it wasn't so.
Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, insisted: "It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections." He conceded that the US administration had "said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally".
Citing unnamed "Obama administration officials", the New York Times reported that Iran had said it was ready for direct talks with the US but first wanted to know which US leader it would be dealing with. That raises one obvious question, which may come up at the debate today: would Mr Romney, who has accused Mr Obama of being too soft on Iran, countenance sitting down with Iran one-to-one?
For its part, Iran also denied anything was agreed and said it remained focused on the existing framework for negotiations with the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany).
"The talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations. Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States," its Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, was quoted as saying.