How US launched secret talks with Iran in March that even its closest allies were kept in the dark about

US negotiators held series of clandestine meetings with Iran over past months which helped set the stage for historic agreement

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 2:43am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 2:43am

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 by the Obama administration that paved the way for the historic deal sealed yesterday in Geneva aimed at slowing Tehran's nuclear programme.

The discussions were kept hidden even from America's closest friends, including its negotiating partners and Israel, until two months ago, according senior US officials. That may explain how the nuclear accord appeared to come together so quickly after years of stalemate and fierce hostility between Iran and the West.

"We had some limited bilateral discussions with the Iranians in addition to the P5-plus-one negotiations that were aimed at developing ideas that we could provide in the P5-plus-one negotiations," one official said.

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 and has angrily denounced the diplomatic outreach to Tehran.

US President Barack Obama 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.

We had some limited bilateral discussions with the Iranians

The talks were held in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman and elsewhere with only a tight circle of people in the know. Since March, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden's top foreign policy adviser, have met at least five times with Iranian officials.

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

The Geneva deal provides Iran with about US$7 billion in relief from international sanctions in exchange for Iranian curbs on uranium enrichment and other nuclear activity. All parties pledged to work toward a final accord next year that would remove remaining suspicions in the West that Tehran is trying to assemble atomic weapons.

Iran insists its nuclear interest is only in peaceful energy production and medical research.

Oman's Sultan Qaboos was a key player, offering himself as a mediator. With his assistance, officials in both countries began quietly making plans to meet in Oman. Burns, Sullivan and a small team of US technical experts arrived on a military plane in mid-March for the meeting with the Iranians.

US 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, particularly after the Iranian election scheduled for the next month, the officials said.

Rowhani'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, the officials said.

In September, Obama and Rowhani spoke by phone - the first direct contact between a US and Iranian leader in more than 30 years. It was only after that phone call that the US began informing allies of the secret talks with Iran, the US officials said.

They added the last secret meetings came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blasted Rowhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" at the UN.

Security, humour mark Iranian nuclear talks

Running the gauntlet

The first hurdle facing the world's top diplomats as they tried to play architects of a new Iranian nuclear order was running the gauntlet of media staking out the hotel.

Each diplomat took a different approach to navigating the maze of more than 100 journalists.

First to arrive was Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a veteran diplomatic broker, who easily brushed past reporters with the aid of Swiss police.

They had warned that any journalist who tried to bark a question at Lavrov would be tossed out.

By contrast, British Foreign Secretary William Hague immediately embraced the pack. He went right up to the TV camera crews and photographers bundled up in the cold while penned into a tent outside the hotel entrance.

US Secretary of State John Kerry used niceties and some of his cultural and linguistic skills.

"Bonjour," he told the hotel manager, which was more than he had to say to the press as he swept past them into the hotel.

Seriously funny

Centrifuges, uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons are hardly subjects for light banter. But that doesn't mean the atmosphere was not without humour.

At the end of their meeting in a hotel suite, Kerry and Lavrov posed for the cameras, chit-chatting about the schedule. Then Lavrov gestured toward a boom microphone being used by a TV sound man, and quipped to Kerry: "He's eavesdropping."

Knowing that Lavrov was referencing the recent disclosures of widespread National Security Agency snooping around the globe - including on US allies in Europe - Kerry pointed at Lavrov and responded: "Must belong to you, not us."

Early check out

With little to no news leaking out of the talks, journalists and even lower-ranking diplomats watched each other for any insights into what was afoot.

On Friday, as word surfaced that the talks were proving difficult, members of the Iranian delegation and Iranian travelling press showed up in the hotel lobby and media centre with their luggage. Word spread - the Iranians have checked out of their hotel - fuelling speculation the talks were headed for collapse. The Iranians had expected the talks to last Wednesday and Thursday and booked their rooms accordingly. No one had advised them officially the talks had been extended. Once they did, the Iranians checked back into their rooms.

Associated Press