Wednesday, November 6, 2013

U.S.-Iran Thaw Grew From Years Of Behind-the-Scenes Talks

WASHINGTON—The White House heralded President Barack Obama\'s phone call with Iranian counterpart Hasan Rouhani earlier this fall as a foreign-policy milestone born of a rush of last-minute diplomacy. But the historic conversation was more intricately choreographed than previously disclosed.

Top National Security Council officials began planting the seeds for such an exchange months earlier—holding a series of secret meetings and telephone calls and convening an assortment of Arab monarchs, Iranian exiles and former U.S. diplomats to clandestinely ferry messages between Washington and Tehran, according to current and former U.S., Middle Eastern and European officials briefed on the effort.

Mr. Obama had empowered the administration\'s top Iran specialist, Puneet Talwar, for some time to have direct meetings and phone conversations with Iranian Foreign Ministry officials, those people say. Some of the contacts took place in Oman\'s ancient capital, Muscat, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials say, which sits less than 200 miles across the Gulf\'s azure waters from the Iranian coastline.

Mr. Talwar, an Indian-American steeped in Iran policy, has at times conveyed a succinct message for his Iranian interlocutors: The U.S. wants to peacefully resolve the dispute over Tehran\'s nuclear program, according to these officials.

Mr. Talwar declined to comment on his role in Iran diplomacy.

The White House also reached out to Tehran through other senior Obama aides, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice, according to Iranian and U.S. officials briefed on the exchanges. At Mr. Obama\'s direction, Ms. Rice had nurtured ties with her Iranian counterpart while serving from 2009-2013 as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, according to U.S. and Iranian officials, rekindling those connections for the September phone call between the Iranian and American leaders.

The intricate communications network helped propel the recent steps toward U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Since late September, senior American and Iranian officials have held three sets of direct talks on the nuclear issue. A fourth is expected Nov. 7 and 8 in Geneva, part of wider negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, a group known as P5+1.

A senior U.S. official said Wednesday it was possible that an initial agreement to curb Iran\'s nuclear program could be reached this week. The negotiations are focused on freezing the most advanced parts of Iran\'s nuclear program, particularly its production of near-weapons grade fuel, in return for sanctions relief.

The secrecy of the diplomatic run-up reflects both the risks to the White House and the delicacy with which the administration is pursuing Mr. Obama\'s goal. Already, what little the administration has disclosed of its overtures to Tehran has alienated several Mideast allies, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, who fear being cut out of decisions with a bearing on their future security.

\"On a good day, we\'re paranoid about Iran,\" said a senior Arab official who regularly discusses Iran policy with the U.S. \"But in the current environment, our fears have only been exacerbated.\"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meeting Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday, reiterated his opposition to any \"partial deals\" that could leave Iran capable of one day developing atomic weapons.

Thus far on his whirlwind tour through the Middle East and elsewhere, John Kerry has been placating egos and smoothing rifts. Here\'s a quick-fire look at his agenda. Via The Foreign Bureau.

U.S. officials believe Iran\'s nuclear program, barring successful negotiations or military strikes, could be advanced enough by next summer that Tehran emerges as a de facto nuclear-weapons state. Tehran has repeatedly denied it is seeking nuclear weapons.

Mr. Talwar, whose title is special assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf States, was a logical choice for the secret White House outreach to Tehran, say diplomats and academics who have worked with him. \"In an administration where the White House dominates Iran policy, it makes sense that Puneet played this role,\" says a former Western diplomat who discussed the secret diplomacy with Mr. Talwar.

Previously Mr. Talwar was a senior staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by then-Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat who is now vice president. While working for the Senate, Mr. Talwar was part of a small group of American academics, congressional officials and retired diplomats who met with Iranian officials during George W. Bush\'s two terms as president.

Other prominent Americans who took part in the Bush-era talks included former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry ; Thomas Pickering, an undersecretary of State in the Clinton administration; and Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt.

The meetings were held in Europe, primarily the Swedish capital of Stockholm. They were organized by international groups that included the Asia Society, which focuses on cultural exchange and conflict resolution; the United Nations Association, an independent organization that supports the U.N.\'s mandate; and Pugwash, an international disarmament organization.
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