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 by the Obama administration that paved the way for the historic deal sealed early on Sunday 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, and 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, The Associated Press has learned.
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.
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 talks were held in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman and elsewhere with only a tight circle of people in the know, the AP learned. 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 Rouhani 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. All spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss by name the highly sensitive diplomatic effort.
The AP was tipped to the first US-Iranian meeting in March shortly after it occurred, but the White House and State Department disputed elements of the account and the AP could not confirm the meeting. The AP learned of further indications of secret diplomacy in the fall and pressed the White House and other officials further. As the Geneva talks appeared to be reaching their conclusion, senior administration officials confirmed to the AP the details of the extensive outreach.