By Anne Penketh, Diplomatic Editor
Published: 05 May 2007
It was billed as a chance for rapprochement between two countries - Iran and the United States - which have been estranged for almost three decades.
The distinguished guests had gathered for a beachside gala dinner on Thursday evening in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Such events are where the real business of diplomacy is often done - in this case on the sidelines of a conference on Iraq attended by foreign ministers of 50 countries.
The hosts had put on a feast of langoustine and beef, served with wine at the Sheraton hotel. A violinist was playing background music from the stage. Enter the Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki. The first thing he noticed was that he had been seated at the same table as the American Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. Opposite her, in fact.
He then noticed the violinist, who was dressed in a long red evening dress and wrapped in a stole. Moments later - before Ms Rice arrived - he flounced out.
Was it because of the "scantily clad" violinist in the sleeveless red dress, as the Iranians are said to have complained?
Was it because of the seating plan, after the Iranians had made it clear that the Foreign Minister was not ready to talk to the head of the American delegation? Or was it the alcohol on the table?
The incident left other guests at Ms Rice's table, including the British Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, bemused.
"I don't know which woman he was afraid of, the woman in the red dress or the Secretary of State," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said wryly yesterday.
Whatever the explanation, the incident dashed any hopes of direct talks between Ms Rice and Mr Mottaki which would have been the highest-level contacts between the two countries since the Bush administration took office in 2001 and branded Iran as a member of the "axis of evil". Instead senior officials met informally yesterday - for three minutes.
Ms Rice was subjected to a broadside from Mr Mottaki yesterday, as he blamed the US "occupation" of Iraq for the bloodshed there.
But the Secretary of State was still holding out an olive branch in her closing press conference. "The opportunity simply didn't arise for the Foreign Minister of Iran and I to meet," she said. "I would have taken that opportunity." Mr Mottaki said: "There was no time, no appointment and no plans."
The scene had been set for the Rice-Mottaki dinner encounter after a cryptic lunchtime exchange on Thursday.
Mr Mottaki walked into the dining room greeting colleagues in Arabic. Ms Rice responded in English with "Hello", adding, "Your English is better than my Arabic."
The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, butted in, saying to Mr Mottaki: "We want to warm the atmosphere some." Mr Mottaki replied: "In Russia, they eat ice cream in winter because it's warmer than the weather." "That's true," said Ms Rice.
It was a far cry from the Americans' original hopes for the Sharm el-Sheikh conference.
Earlier in the week, Nicholas Burns, the US Undersecretary of State, made it clear that America was hoping for direct talks between his boss and the Iranian Foreign Minister.
He even mused aloud about whether the Chinese model of "ping pong" diplomacy could serve as a model for possible "wrestling diplomacy" to warm relations between Iran and the US, following last January's visit to Iran by the national US wrestling team.
But Thursday showed that "violin diplomacy" was not going to work either. The Iranians are still playing hard to get.