TEHRAN, Iran -- Quick quiz: Which Muslim Middle East country held spontaneous candlelight vigils in sympathy with Americans after Sept. 11? Kuwait? No. Saudi Arabia? No. Iran? Yes. You got it! You win a free trip to Iran.
And if you come you'll discover not only a Muslim country where many people were sincerely sympathetic to America after Sept. 11, but a country where so many people on the street are now talking about -- and hoping for -- a reopening of relations with America that the ruling hard-liners had to take the step two weeks ago of making it illegal for anyone to speak about it in public.
No matter. Despite the official ban, Iran-U.S. relations are still the No. 1 political subject here and are still being openly discussed in parliament and in the reformist press. And no conversation between an Iranian and a visiting American seems to be complete without the question: "When do you think we will have relations again?"
What's fueling this discussion? To begin with, there's an overall sense, probably unrealistic, that everything that ails Iran today and frustrates average Iranians -- from the widespread unemployment to a sense of isolation from the world, to a lack of foreign investment, to a general political malaise -- would somehow be reversed if Iranian-U.S. relations were restored and the U.S. embargo on Iran lifted.
But what is striking is how much President Bush's branding of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" (along with Iraq and North Korea) intensified this discussion. At first, reformers in parliament and the media were embarrassed by Mr. Bush's statement, which hard-liners used against them as "proof" that America would never have ties with the Islamic Republic. But since then, reformers have retaliated by pointing to the "axis of evil" accusation and saying to the hard-liners: "Look where your policies have led us."
Add to this the reduction in U.S. visas for Iranians since Sept. 11, which has dispirited many Iranian college students, and the shock the Iranians had two weeks ago when Russia, their longtime backer, effectively joined NATO, and you can understand why a lot of people here are rethinking ties with Washington.
What's striking is how much the debate within Iran mirrors that in Washington.
There are three schools in Washington: the Engagers, who argue that since America helped to ignite this debate in Iran, we should now pour fuel on it by actively seeking diplomatic ties; the Embargoers, who see Iran's clerical regime as an overripe fruit that will fall from the tree if the United States just keeps isolating it; and the Rollbackers, who would like to force a regime change in Iran.
In Iran, there are also Engagers, who see American ties as the key to Iran's modernization; Isolators, who distrust America and believe Iran is better off going it alone; and Provokers -- conservatives who believe they would be strengthened by a confrontation with the United States.
Diplomats here insist that even Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's hard-line spiritual leader, is no longer against relations with the United States -- he can smell the mood here, too, and he knows how badly Iran's economy needs U.S. investment and trade -- but he wants to find a way to do it whereby he, not the reformers, gets the credit and controls it.
For now, though, the different factions in both countries each have just enough power to block the others from any fundamental move that would really make relations better or worse.
It's too bad, because the silent majority in both countries is for engagement.
In short, I don't know what the final outcome will be, but I do know this: If Secretary of State Colin Powell were to announce tomorrow that he was ready to fly to Tehran and put everything on the table -- an end to sanctions, Iran's nuclear program, its support for Palestinian terrorists, diplomatic relations -- he would light this place on fire.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times. His column appears in The Sun Tuesdays and Thursdays.