Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry held a series of previously undisclosed meetings last year with a senior adviser to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss Iran’s nuclear program, a person familiar with the back-channel talks said Thursday.
The person, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the talks took place with Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s closest aide, and were “discussions, not negotiations,” aimed at clarifying understanding of the two sides’ positions.
Former U.S. officials have had numerous conversations with Iranians over the years, but few, if any, with officials as influential as Mr. Samareh.
It was not clear whether Mr. Perry, a veteran statesman who also served as a Clinton administration troubleshooter on the North Korean nuclear program, was acting at the behest of the Bush administration or others. The Bush White House rejected several overtures for back-channel talks with Iranian officials in 2005 and 2006.
Mr. Perry was traveling and not available to comment, his office said.
The United States has accused Iran of developing a program that could give it nuclear weapons and supporting Arab militant groups. Iran denies that it is seeking weapons and says groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are freedom fighters, not terrorists.
The talks were revealed as U.S. and European diplomats predicted that the Obama administration would not rush into high-level official meetings with Iran before the nation holds presidential elections in June. An aide to Mr. Ahmadinejad said Wednesday that the president will seek re-election.
The diplomats said the U.S. does not want to take actions that could boost Mr. Ahmadinejad’s chances.
An Iranian Web site, Yari News, first reported Thursday that talks between Mr. Perry and Mr. Samareh were “about to be held” in Europe. Mr. Samareh, speaking to the Fars News Agency in Iran, denied this.
The person familiar with so-called track-two diplomacy with Iran outside official channels said the talks already had taken place and that he feared that the revelation could prejudice further discussions.
A U.S. official declined to comment but said the administration was not ruling out any approach toward Tehran.
Diplomats involved in efforts to bring Tehran to the negotiating table said that the Obama administration, in keeping with the president’s campaign pledges, would seek talks, but at a level below president or secretary of state.
“Something is certainly in the works with regard to engagement, but I suspect it will be at a low level,” said a senior U.S. diplomat who declined to discuss the issue on the record because Iran policy is under review.
The State Department denied reports that the administration had written a letter to Iranian officials in response to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s letter congratulating President Obama on his election, but left open the prospect.
State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said that “no one has tasked anybody within the administration to draft” such a letter.
“Could somebody in this building at some point have taken it upon his or herself to draft something? You know how large this building is. It’s hard to know,” he said.
One challenge for the administration is that it is not sure whom to approach in Iran, where a Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, wields supreme power but does not generally meet with Westerners.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, “It is unclear who exactly that dialogue would be with in Iran.”
Among the issues Washington has to “work through” with Tehran are “an illicit nuclear program, the sponsorship of terrorism and the threatening of peace in Israel,” he said.
Thomas R. Pickering, a retired career ambassador who was undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Clinton administration, met last year with academics from Iranian government-run institutions, he said Thursday.
Mr. Pickering said the new administration should not wait to engage Iran, but at the same time, “it would be unwise to take positions that could influence the outcome of the election.”
A senior Western diplomat said the administration is being “very cautious,” trying to balance its position that early contacts with Iran are important with the many challenges such contacts are certain to pose.
“One challenge is the [Iranian] presidential election and what you do before it,” said the diplomat, who also asked not to be named because he was discussing private conversations. “If you want to make any kind of move, you have to be very cautious so that the move doesn’t play a part in one way or another in the election. To put it in simple terms, how to move without giving some sort of support to President Ahmadinejad.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad could argue that his tough stance and defiance of U.N. sanctions have caused a change of American policy, the diplomat said.
In an interview Tuesday with the Al-Arabiya Arabic news channel, Mr. Obama repeated a comment from his inaugural address: “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”
Iranian officials responded that the United States first must change its policies toward Tehran.
The administration is expected to name former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross to coordinate its Iran policy. Although that has been known for a few weeks, Mr. Ross’ official appointment has not been made because “the scope of his duties are clearly an issue the administration is [still] trying to define,” one U.S. official said.
People in the Iranian-American community and groups that promote engagement with Iran oppose the nomination because Mr. Ross has no experience dealing with Iranians and is seen in Tehran as biased toward Israel, said Hooshang Amirahmadi, president of the American Iranian Council, an advocacy group.
“Dennis Ross will not engender trust in Tehran,” Mr. Amirahmadi told The Washington Times.
The person who confirmed the Perry talks said Mr. Ross had also angered the Obama administration by having the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank where Mr. Ross is a councilor, report his appointment to its trustees before the administration announced it.
In the meantime, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns, a holdover from the Bush administration who took part last summer in a multilateral meeting including Iranian negotiators, will meet next week in Germany with the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - Britain, France, Russia and China - and Germany to discuss Iran policy, the State Department said.
“The possibility by the American administration of a dialogue with Iran is a very important card in our game,” said a senior European diplomat. He added that the six powers are considering more U.N. sanctions on Iran affecting technology transfers in the energy sector.
The diplomat also said the Obama administration has promised the Europeans “not to do anything without consulting” with them first. He said no major decisions are expected until the U.S. policy review is completed.
Eli Lake contributed to this report.