Actually, President Nixon's China initiative was a series of small steps. It's just that they were largely undertaken in secret. Even public gestures, such as Beijing's invitation to U.S. table tennis players in 1971, while noted by the media as evidence of warming relations, never exposed the careful preparatory work being done by Henry Kissinger at the behest of President Nixon before he stunned the world in July 1971 by announcing that he would visit Beijing. As Margaret Macmillan recounts so carefully and the statesmen's memoirs also disclose, the U.S. wanted to know exactly what China would demand on Taiwan and other issues before the President's visit was announced. Great care was even taken over how China's invitation and the two governments' announcements would be worded, since neither side wanted to look too eager. The worst thing for the U.S. strategically, and for RN politically, would've been for the Chinese to rebuff or ridicule his suit.
"This is not a Nixon goes to China moment," said Iran expert Joe Cirincione, referring to former President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972 which broke two decades of silence between the two nations.
"You will have a series of incremental steps -- small pieces that put together the mosaic of a new relationship," added Cirincione, who heads the Ploughshares Fund, a grant-making foundation focused on nuclear issues.
It's impossible to know, of course, what secret contacts or understandings may exist between the White House and the Iranians. It's hard to imagine that these don't exist, if only because it would be reckless to launch a public initiative without having some confidence about how it would be received. Iran's unconstructive comments in response to Obama's message could just be posturing. "You realize that for the sake of our domestic constituencies we'll have to call you Great Satans a while longer," the Iranian UN ambassador (for instance) would've said to Obama's envoy over orange juice.
What could have prevented Obama from attempting a private dialog, no matter how much the Nixon-China analogy would seem to have recommended it, was the countervailing example of the Reagan administration's much-ridiculed attempts to reach out to so-called Iranian moderates. Either way, for now Obama is hanging fire. Here's hoping the suspense will be overtaken by the surprise announcement of a visit set against the backdrop of an agreed upon framework of principles that embraces our and our allies' fundamental security interests.