A confusing turn of events took place over the weekend with regard to US–Iranian relations. On Saturday, the New York Times published an article that suggested that the US and Iran had “agreed in principle” to hold one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s troublesome nuclear program. The Times article is based on information provided by “a senior [Obama] administration official.”
The unexpected disclosure that the Obama administration and the Iranian government had agreed to direct talks came as a big surprise to analysts of US–Iranian relations. This was because both countries have long avoided direct talks on any issue, especially the nuclear one, preferring instead to work through multi-lateral P5+1 group, referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia, China) and Germany. But the P5+1 talks have gone nowhere due to US insistence that Iran cease all enrichment activities, to which Iran argues it has an “inalienable right” under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Times article is the revelation that the agreement was the “result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term.” Considering how poorly the P5+1 talks have gone, this comes across as remarkable.
Almost immediately after the publication of the Times article, both the US and Iranian governments issued denials. On 20 October, Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the NSC, issued a statement denying the claim: “It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections. We continue to work with the P5 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”
Similarly, the Iranian government issued a denial that any agreement had been reached with the US, in principle or otherwise. At a news conference on Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said, “We [have not had] any discussions or negotiations with America. . . The [nuclear] talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations. Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States.”
With both sides denying that talks have been taking place, it is difficult to determine if the leak was a clever pre-election ploy to put President Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, on the defensive prior to a final debate that will focus on foreign policy. Given Romney’s hardline approach to Iran, his close ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his support for military strikes in response to Iran’s nuclear program, the possibility of direct talks with Iran on the nuclear issue puts him in a very difficult position. As the Times points out, “The danger of opposing such a diplomatic initiative is that it could make [Romney] look as if he is willing to risk another American war in the Middle East without exhausting alternatives.” Given widespread discomfort among the US public about fighting another war in the Middle East, this leak could very well have an impact on who wins the election on 6 November.
Nevertheless, an article by Laura Rozen in Al-Monitor, suggests that the talks are legitimate. According to Rozen, an Iran analyst suggested that Gary Samore, the White House WMD coordinator who led the US delegation to the Istanbul talks in July, had held secret talks with “an Iranian official posted as a diplomat to Turkey.”
Building on this, NBC News reported that a senior administration official had said that back-channel talks between the US and Iran about meeting bilaterally on the Iranians’ nuclear program had been ongoing, but no meeting has been agreed to. More importantly, the official said that these “backchannel talks have been done in full consultation with the allies—the P5 + 1 and Israel.”
It seems that Obama administration officials were upset about the leak. According to NBC: “[When asked] about the impact on Monday’s foreign policy debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, the official said the administration is not happy that the story came out before the debate, but said the American people might be happy to know the administration is willing to explore all possibilities to get Iran to give up its nuclear program.”
In the end, the body of evidence suggests that back channel talks between the US and Iran have been taking place intermittently throughout Obama’s first term, and that the US was prepared to hold bilateral talks with Iran. If this is true and the US and Iran have “agreed in principle” to meet, it is a big breakthrough in US–Iranian relations, which have been quite hostile throughout the past four years, particularly throughout the last year. But the Obama administration’s efforts to prevent a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities does suggest that the US is willing to use its influence to prevent another major war in the region.
Indeed, for those who have long urged a US–Iran rapprochement, this could be the harbinger that they have long hoped for.