Away from pomp and fanfare surrounding the multiparty talks in Geneva that resulted in this weekend’s nuclear deal with Iran, senior Obama administration officials and other sources are now revealing that U.S. and Iran actually, and very secretly, have been engaged in high-level direct talks for more than a year.
The discussions were kept hidden even from the four other nations negotiating with Iran in Geneva alongside the U.S. and from key ally Israel, according to The Associated Press, which reported Sunday that Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, have met face-to-face at least five times with Iranian officials since March.
The AP’s revelation was confirmed in the main later Sunday to The Washington Times by a U.S. official on condition of anonymity. The revelation was a surprise in Washington’s foreign-policy circles since the Obama administration has spent recent months attempting to craft an alternative narrative around the high-stakes nuclear talks, which have accelerated at unprecedented pace recently and triggered tension between Washington and Israel, long seen as America’s closest ally in the Middle East.
In public, the administration’s relations with Iran had appeared to be led by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Wendy Sherman, undersecretary for political affairs who was believed to be Washington’s chief negotiator with Iran during the recent multiparty nuclear talks.
But reportedly Mr. Burns — a lone career diplomat among the administration’s senior foreign-policy circle of politically appointed officials — has been secretly sitting in the driver’s seat the whole time, meeting with Iranian officials in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman and elsewhere with only a tight circle of officials in the know.
The U.S. official who spoke with The Times on condition of anonymity said Oman had played a key “intermediary” role between the U.S. and Iran over the past year.
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While other officials, including Mr. Sullivan, National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice and Puneet Talwar, a key Middle East specialist in the White House, also have been involved in the secret direct talks, Mr. Burns’s behind-the-scenes role is the only one to stretch back to the final years of the George W. Bush administration.
In July 2008, Mr. Bush dispatched Mr. Burns, then undersecretary for political affairs, to Geneva to personally receive a response from Iran to what at the time was a U.N. offer to resume talks over the nuclear program on the condition that the Islamic republic agreed to halt its uranium enrichment activities.
The mission appeared to be a failure, but it was a rare and direct contact between Washington and Tehran that set in motion what officials now describe as a delicate, back-channel diplomatic matrix — apparently constructed and led by Mr. Burns — that ultimately paved the way to this weekend’s breakthrough deal.
Upon his inauguration in 2009, President Obama cleaned house by removing nearly all of the Bush administration’s politically appointed national security operators.
Mr. Burns, however, was kept on the job at the State Department and quietly given the task of holding a second discrete meeting with a top Iranian negotiator as the international community sought to boost the then-failing nuclear talks.
A 31-year veteran of the department, Mr. Burns is considered a career foreign service officer, a rare breed of American diplomat revered by Foggy Bottom’s rank and file for the political neutrality they are believed to espouse.
When Mr. Obama moved to promote him to deputy secretary of state in 2011, it was considered something of a rare move, making Mr. Burns only the second career State Department official in history to reach the department’s key No. 2 position — a slot traditionally coveted as a place for a sitting president to inject his own politically appointed foreign policy operatives.
Once in the job, Mr. Burns was able to use his new weight to accelerate previous attempts to create an opening with Iran. He is believed, particularly, to have seized on an opportunity that had arisen during Mr. Obama’s first term when it became clear that Tehran might be interested in negotiating the release of three American hikers detained by Iranian authorities in 2009.
According to The Associated Press report, which cited U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, efforts to win the release of the hikers turned out to be instrumental to the future of the nuclear talks.
After facilitating the release of the hikers to the U.S., Sultan Qaboos of Oman offered himself as a mediator in 2011 for a deeper U.S.-Iran rapprochement and the secret informal discussions between mid-level officials in Washington and Tehran began.
The Wall Street Journal reported early this month that Mr. Obama tapped Mr. Talwar, his administration’s top Iran specialist, to engage in direct meetings and phone conversations with Iranian Foreign Ministry officials. Citing unnamed U.S. and Middle Eastern officials, the report said that some of the contacts involving Mr. Talwar took place in Oman’s ancient capital of Muscat, less than 200 miles across the Persian Gulf from Iran.
The initial conversations were reportedly focused on the logistics of setting up higher-level talks. The discussions including face-to-face talks at undisclosed locations beyond Oman and reportedly also included exchanges with other senior Obama administration officials, including Ms. Rice, who was serving at the time as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
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 U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran.
The Middle East news website Al-Monitor, meanwhile, reported that Mr. Burns has been quietly involved on the sidelines of the recent nuclear talks in Geneva but has not stayed at the main diplomatic hotel in the Swiss city, the Intercontinental, where many of the negotiations have taken place.