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Inside the secret US-Iran diplomacy that sealed nuke deal

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei authorized direct talks with the United States on the nuclear issue as early as 2011, but real progress was not made until Hassan Rouhani, unaware of the talks, came into office in August 2013, US and Iranian officials say.
EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi (R) gestures next to his Omani counterpart Yousef bin Alawi during a joint news conference in Tehran February 21, 2012. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi  (IRAN - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR2Y704

When Hassan Rouhani was elected Iran’s president in June 2013 on a campaign platform of engaging with the West to reach a nuclear deal and improve Iran’s economy, he apparently didn't know that Iran and the United States had already opened a secret diplomatic channel and held bilateral talks in Oman on the nuclear issue in March 2013.

“The first time I informed Rouhani of the secret negotiations with the United States was after his election to office,” former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in an interview Aug. 4 with Iran Daily, adding that the incoming president and former Iranian nuclear negotiator was shocked when Salehi briefed him on the consultations ahead of his inauguration: “Rouhani was in disbelief.”

That is among the revelations that have emerged from interviews with senior Iranian and US officials in the wake of reaching of a final Iran nuclear accord by Iran and six world powers on July 14. The final deal — formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — is currently under a 60-day review by the US Congress. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some pro-Israel lobby groups are pressing members of Congress to kill the deal by voting next month on a resolution of disapproval that seeks to block President Barack Obama from providing the US sanctions relief promised in the accord in exchange for significant steps Iran agreed to take to limit its nuclear program. Obama has vowed to veto any such resolution, and Democrats currently believe they have enough support to sustain his veto, if required.

The new insights offer deeper perspective on the critical role that the US-Iran diplomacy played in reaching the nuclear deal. They also suggest that the national interests that drove both countries to pursue bilateral talks are more far-reaching than the ideological predilections of any one political administration, even as they show that individual political leaders — in this case, Rouhani and Obama — were crucial in bringing the competence, internal government consensus and determination to reach a deal.

While nuclear negotiations only made rapid progress after Rouhani came into office in August 2013 and tapped Mohammad Javad Zarif as his foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator, it is perhaps less well known that Iran’s hard-line Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei authorized secret talks with the United States on the nuclear issue two years earlier, in 2011, at the urging of Oman’s Sultan Qaboos as well as Salehi.

Khamenei himself publicly revealed how the talks began with the Americans in a major speech on June 23, which was held as the last round of final deal nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany — was getting underway in Vienna.

“I would like to present a short history of these negotiations,” Khamenei said in the speech to Iranian government workers June 23. “Our negotiations with the Americans are, in fact, different from our negotiations with the P5+1. The Americans themselves asked for these negotiations and their proposals date back to the time of the tenth [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] administration.”

“So the negotiations with the Americans began before the arrival of the current administration,” Khamenei continued. “They made a request and chose an intermediary. One of the honorable personalities in the region [Qaboos] came to Iran and met with me. He said that the American president had called him, asking him to help. The American president said to him that they want to resolve the nuclear matter with Iran and that they would lift the sanctions.”

Khamenei said, “Through that intermediary [Qaboos], he [Obama] asked us to negotiate with them and to resolve the matter. I said to that honorable intermediary that we do not trust the Americans and their statements. He said, ‘Try it once more,’ and we said, ‘Very well, we will try it this time, too.’ This was how the negotiations with the Americans began.”

But even after Khamenei consented to direct US-Iran negotiations on the nuclear issue in 2011, it took almost a year before a preparatory meeting occurred, mostly due to divisions within the Iranian side, Salehi told Iran Daily. In July 2012, a preliminary meeting was held in Oman, which was attended on the US side by Jake Sullivan, deputy chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Puneet Talwar, the National Security Council's senior director for the Persian Gulf at the time. But the preparatory discussions subsequently paused for several months for the 2012 US presidential elections.

“After getting the Supreme Leader’s permission, it took us eight months to coordinate with [Iran nuclear negotiator Saeed] Jalili before we could start the secret talks with the US,” Salehi said. “We burned a real opportunity.”

In March 2013, shortly after Obama’s re-election, a more significant, three-day US-Iran meeting was held in Oman.

At the March 2013 Oman meeting, then-Deputy Secretary of State William Burns conveyed a message from Obama that he would be prepared to accept a limited domestic enrichment program in Iran as part of an otherwise acceptable final Iran nuclear deal, Al-Monitor reported in July 2014.

The Iran team — led by then-Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Asghar Khaji, Al-Monitor first reported last year, and which included Ali Akbar Rezaei, head of the North America office in Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, US and Iranian officials told Al-Monitor — was, however, in a “fact-finding,” listening mode and apparently not prepared to enter into serious negotiations at that point, former US officials said. (Khaji currently serves as Iran’s ambassador to China, and Rezaei subsequently served as Iran’s ambassador to Cyprus until 2014.) Another meeting was apparently scheduled for May, but the Iranians backed out, in anticipation of their June presidential elections.

“It was a useful engagement, but not much progress was made because the Iran leadership was not really interested,” a former senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor last year of the March 2013 meeting in Oman. “It helped provide some basis [for understanding] … It was clear that while there could be more intensive and candid discussions bilaterally, the real progress wasn’t going to be possible” before the June 2013 Iranian elections.

The Oman channel was about seeing if the United States and Iran could reach an understanding on the enrichment issue to advance a nuclear accord, Philip Gordon, the former top Obama White House Middle East official, said.

“I think the basic question in Oman was to explore whether, if the US and others accepted some limited and highly constrained and monitored degree of Iranian enrichment, Iran would address our other concerns to ensure paths to a weapon [are] blocked,” Gordon told Al-Monitor Aug. 10. “And in the end, that’s how it turned out.” 

Progress was rapid after Rouhani came into office and put Zarif in charge of the nuclear negotiating team. Zarif in turn tapped Iranian Deputy Foreign Ministers Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi to pursue the bilateral negotiations with the United States.

Early on in Burns’ and Sullivan’s meetings with Ravanchi and Araghchi, they realized they were probably going to be able to reach a deal, but it would be hard, diplomatic sources said. One early issue they had to resolve was whether to try to do the whole thing at once or reach an interim accord and then pursue a final deal, as they ultimately decided. The US and Iran teams had a draft of an interim deal, with a couple of brackets, completed by the end of October, though it took more meetings with the P5+1 to finalize the interim deal a month later, in November 2013 — after which the US-Iran secret back channel was revealed by Al-Monitor and other sources.

In all, there were about nine or 10 secret US-Iran bilateral meetings over the nine months between the March 2013 Oman meeting and the reaching of the interim Iran nuclear deal in November 2013, a former US official estimated.

Final deal talks between Iran and the P5+1 got underway in Vienna in early 2014, but stalled by the end of last year, when a seven-month extension was announced.

Salehi, now the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said Ali Larijani, the Iran parliament speaker and a former Iranian nuclear negotiator, proposed that he join the talks, because, Salehi said, he was perceived to be opposed to some positions needed to strike agreement. Salehi said he would only agree to join the talks if his US counterpart, US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, came, or else said he would resign as AEOI chief and come as Zarif’s science adviser. But US negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman quickly agreed to the proposal to include Moniz and Salehi in the talks, Salehi said Araghchi told him.

Salehi and Moniz joined Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif for the first time at bilateral nuclear negotiations held at the Hotel President Wilson in Geneva in February 2015, and rapid progress was made on some of the most difficult technical matters, including the size of Iran’s enrichment capacity in a final deal. Iran agreed to reduce the number of centrifuges it uses to enrich uranium to 5,000 IR-1s for a decade and to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to just 300 kilograms (661 pounds) for 15 years, among other steps. A framework nuclear deal was announced in Lausanne, Switzerland, in April.

Salehi subsequently, however, became quite ill and underwent surgery, and he missed a bilateral meeting between Kerry, Zarif and Moniz in Geneva in May. (They had Salehi on the phone, but one official on the call said he could hear Salehi sounding notably weaker throughout the duration of the call.) Kerry broke his leg the day after the meeting in a bicycle accident. Zarif held another meeting with Burns in Geneva in May, sources told Al-Monitor.

Zarif arrived for the final round of nuclear deal talks in Vienna in late June without Salehi, but went back to Tehran and accompanied him back to Vienna, where Salehi seemed to rally, rolling up his sleeves with Moniz to discuss their shared expertise in nuclear physics — contacts in common from Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and Salehi’s new granddaughter, Sara.

When Khamenei gave the green light for direct talks with the United States, Salehi said he could not at first believe it, said Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“He triple checked that they have permission,” Vaez told Al-Monitor. Also notable, Vaez commented on Salehi’s interview, was that Salehi said when he first briefed Rouhani about the secret US-Iran negotiations, shortly before his inauguration, Rouhani “was in total shock and disbelief.” Rouhani was apparently in the dark, though he was a member of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. (Some Iranian sources suggest, however, that Zarif was aware of Khamenei's backing for direct talks with the United States on the nuclear issues.)

Salehi, in his comments last week, credited Rouhani for advocating the talks with the United States — even as he made clear that he was an even earlier advocate for the same at a time when the political environment in Iran was less receptive.

“If we hadn't negotiated with the US, the reality was, we wouldn't have reached a deal with the P5+1,” Salehi said. “No country would send its foreign minister for [19] days to negotiate. Who else was willing to spend this amount of time and energy to negotiate with their secretaries of state and energy and experts with us?”

“Rouhani believed that we should negotiate directly with the US,” Salehi added. “It was proved that he was right. We couldn't have moved forward with the others.”

After the deal was reached overnight July 14 in Vienna, officials involved in the secret back channel diplomacy for the past two years reached out to each other, sending notes to their counterparts on the accomplishment, sources told Al-Monitor.

Meanwhile, next month, both Obama and Rouhani are scheduled to address the opening session of the UN General Assembly in New York on the same day, Sept. 28. Rouhani, speaking in New York last September, said he and Obama had agreed in their historic 2013 telephone call that in the future, the United States and Iran might cooperate in other areas, but first they needed to reach a nuclear deal.

"We have a saying in Persian," Rouhani said he told Obama, "Let's first raise the baby we gave birth to and then move on to the second."

But as the heated congressional debate about the deal shows, raising that first baby — implementing the nuclear deal and building confidence in it over time — is likely to continue to consume most of the bandwidth in the two leaders' efforts to steer their countries on a less confrontational path.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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