US and Iran held secret talks on nuclear deal for a year

Oman's Sultan Qaboos a key player in arranging secret nuclear talks between the US and Iran, which have been taking place for about a year.

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) and French foreign minister Laurent Fabius after making a statement about the landmark nuclear agreement in Geneva. Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
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WASHINGTON // The United States and Iran secretly engaged in a series of high-level, face-to-face talks over the past year, in a high-stakes diplomatic gamble that paved the way for the historic deal sealed early yesterday in Geneva aimed at slowing Tehran’s nuclear programme.

The discussions, held in Oman and elsewhere, were kept hidden even from America’s closest friends, including its negotiating partners and Israel, until two months ago. The secret discussions may explain how the nuclear accord appeared to come together so quickly after years of stalemate and fierce hostility between Iran and the West.

But the secrecy of the talks may also explain some of the tensions between the US and France, which earlier this month balked at a proposed deal, and with Israel, which is furious about the agreement.

President Barack Obama personally authorised the talks as part of his effort – promised in his first inaugural address – to reach out to a country the State Department designates as the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism.

The last four clandestine meetings, held since Iran’s reform-minded President Hassan Rouhani was inaugurated in August, produced much of the agreement later hammered out in negotiations in Geneva among the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran, said three senior administration officials.

At the president’s direction, the United States began a tentative outreach shortly after Mr Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. Mr Obama and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, exchanged letters, but the engagement yielded no results.

That outreach was hampered by Iran’s hardline former president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who was re-elected in a disputed vote in June of that year. The next month, relations seemed at another low when Iran detained three American hikers who had strayed across the Iranian border from Iraq.

Efforts to win the release of the hikers turned out to be instrumental in making the clandestine diplomacy possible.

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos was a key player, facilitating the eventual release of the hikers – the last two of whom returned to the United States in 2011 – and then offering himself as a mediator for a US-Iran rapprochement. The secret informal discussions between mid-level officials in Washington and Tehran began.

Officials described those early contacts as exploratory focused on the logistics of setting up higher-level talks. The discussions happened through numerous channels, officials said, including face-to-face talks at undisclosed locations. They included exchanges between then US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, now Mr Obama’s national security adviser, and Iran’s envoy to the world body.

The talks took on added weight eight months ago, when Mr Obama dispatched William Burns, the US deputy secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, vice president Joe Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, and five other officials to meet with their Iranian counterparts in Muscat.

Mr Obama dispatched the group shortly after the six powers opened a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in late February.

At the time, those negotiations were making little progress, and the Iranians had little interest in holding bilateral talks with the United States on the sidelines of the meeting out of fear that the discussions would become public, the US officials said.

So, with the assistance of Sultan Qaboos, officials in both countries began quietly making plans to meet in Oman.

Beyond nuclear issues, the officials said the US team at the March Oman meeting also raised concerns about Iranian involvement in Syria, Tehran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and the status of Robert Levinson, a missing former FBI agent who the US believes was abducted in Iran, as well as two other Americans detained in the country.

Hoping to keep the channel open, Secretary of State John Kerry then visited Oman in May on a trip ostensibly to push a military deal with the sultanate but secretly focused on maintaining that country’s key mediation role.

Mr Rouhani’s election in June on a platform of easing sanctions crippling Iran’s economy and stated willingness to engage with the West gave a new spark to the US effort.

Two secret meetings were organised immediately after Mr Rouhani took office in August, with the specific goal of advancing the stalled nuclear talks with world powers. Another pair of meetings took place in October.

Mr Burns and Mr Sullivan led the US delegation at each of those sessions.

The Iranian delegation was a mix of officials the Americans had met in March in Oman and others who were new to the talks.

US officials said the meetings happened in multiple locations, but would not confirm the exact spots. But at least some of the talks are believed to have taken place in Oman.

The private meetings coincided with a public easing of US-Iranian discord. In early August, Mr Obama sent Mr Rouhani a letter congratulating him on his election. The Iranian leader’s response was viewed positively by the White House, which quickly laid the groundwork for the additional secret talks. The US officials said they were convinced that the outreach had the blessing of Ayatollah Ali Khameni.

Public speculation swirled over a possible meeting between Mr Obama and Mr Rouhani on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, which both attended in September in New York. But the meeting never happened largely due to Iranian concerns, the officials said. Two days later, though, Mr Obama and Mr Rouhani spoke by phone – the first direct contact between a US and Iranian leader in more than 30 years.

It was only after that Obama-Rouhani phone call that the US began informing allies of the secret talks with Iran.

Mr Obama handled the most sensitive conversation himself, briefing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting on 30 September at the White House. He informed Mr Netanyahu only about the two summer meetings, not the March talks, in keeping with the White House’s promise only to tell allies about any discussions with Iran that were substantive.

The US officials would not describe Mr Netanyahu’s reaction. But the next day, he delivered his General Assembly speech, blasting Mr Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and warning the US against mistaking a change in Iran’s tone with an actual change in nuclear ambitions.

After telling Mr Netanyahu about the secret talks, the United States then briefed the other members of the six-nation negotiating team.

The last secret gatherings between the US and Iran took place shortly after the General Assembly, according to the officials.

There, the deal finally reached by the parties yesterday began to take its final shape.

* Associated Press