November 08, 2013
Secret Efforts Planted Seeds for Obama Call with Rouhani
WASHINGTON—The White House heralded President Barack Obama's phone call with Iranian counterpart Hasan Rouhani earlier this fall as a foreign-policy milestone born of a rush of last-minute diplomacy. But the historic conversation was more intricately choreographed than previously disclosed.
Top National Security Council officials began planting the seeds for such an exchange months earlier—holding a series of secret meetings and telephone calls and convening an assortment of Arab monarchs, Iranian exiles and former U.S. diplomats to clandestinely ferry messages between Washington and Tehran, according to current and former U.S., Middle Eastern and European officials briefed on the effort.
Initial Nuclear Deal with Tehran Takes Shape
Mr. Obama had empowered the administration's top Iran specialist, Punit Talwar, for some time to have direct meetings and phone conversations with Iranian Foreign Ministry officials, those people say. Some of the contacts took place in Oman's ancient capital, Muscat, U.S. and Middle Eastern officials say which sits less than 200 miles across the Gulf's azure waters from the Iranian coastline.
Mr. Talwar, an Indian-American steeped in Iran policy, has at times conveyed a succinct message for his Iranian interlocutors: The U.S. wants to peacefully resolve the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program, according to these officials.
Mr. Talwar declined to comment on his role in Iran diplomacy.
The White House also reached out to Tehran through other senior Obama aides, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice, according to Iranian and U.S. officials briefed on the exchanges. At Mr. Obama's direction, Ms. Rice had nurtured ties with her Iranian counterpart while serving from 2009-2013 as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, according to U.S. and Iranian officials, rekindling those connections for the September phone call between the Iranian and American
The intricate communications network helped propel the recent steps toward U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Since late September, senior American and Iranian officials have held three sets of direct talks on the nuclear issue. A fourth is expected Nov. 7 and 8 in Geneva, part of wider negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, a group known as P5+1.
A spokesman at Iran's mission to the United Nations didn't respond to requests for comment on the diplomacy efforts.
A senior U.S. official said Wednesday it was possible that an initial agreement to curb Iran's nuclear program could be reached this week. The negotiations are focused on freezing the most advanced parts of Iran's nuclear program, particularly its production of near-weapons grade fuel, in return for sanctions relief.
The secrecy of the diplomatic run-up reflects both the risks to the White House and the delicacy with which the administration is pursuing Mr. Obama's goal. Already, what little the administration has disclosed of its overtures to Tehran has alienated several Mideast allies, notably Israel and Saudi Arabia, who fear being cut out of decisions with a bearing on their future security.
"On a good day, we're paranoid about Iran," said a senior Arab official who regularly discusses Iran policy with the U.S. "But in the current environment, our fears have only been exacerbated."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meeting Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday, reiterated his opposition to any "partial deals" that could leave Iran capable of one day developing atomic weapons.
Thus far on his whirlwind tour through the Middle East and elsewhere, John Kerry has been placating egos and smoothing rifts. Here's a quick-fire look at his agenda. Via The Foreign Bureau. (Photo: Getty)
U.S. officials believe Iran's nuclear program, barring successful negotiations or military strikes, could be advanced enough by next summer that Tehran emerges as a de facto nuclear-weapons state. Tehran has repeatedly denied it is seeking nuclear weapons.
Mr. Talwar, whose title is special assistant to the president and National Security Council senior director for Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf States, was a logical choice for the secret White House outreach to Tehran, say diplomats and academics who have worked with him. "In an administration where the White House dominates Iran policy, it makes sense that Puneet played this role," says a former Western diplomat who discussed the secret diplomacy with Mr. Talwar.
Previously Mr. Talwar was a senior staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by then-Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat who is now vice president. While working for the Senate, Mr. Talwar was part of a small group of American academics, congressional officials and retired diplomats who met with Iranian officials during George W. Bush's two terms as president.
Other prominent Americans who took part in the Bush-era talks included former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry ; Thomas Pickering, an undersecretary of State in the Clinton administration; and Frank Wisner, a former ambassador to Egypt.
The meetings were held in Europe, primarily the Swedish capital of Stockholm. They were organized by international groups that included the Asia Society, which focuses on cultural exchange and conflict resolution; the United Nations Association, an independent organization that supports the U.N.'s mandate; and Pugwash, an international disarmament organization.
" The secrecy of the diplomatic run-up reflects both the risks to the White House and the delicacy used in pursuing Mr. Obama's goal. "
The American and Iranian sides gathered in hotels and conference halls, seeking formulas to defuse the crisis over Iran's nuclear program and avert a war. Participants said in interviews that the key would be solutions recognizing Tehran's desire for nuclear technologies while addressing the West's fears that Iran was secretly developing atomic weapons.
The U.S. attendees were encouraged by the high level of Iranian participation, those who attended say. Javad Zarif, now Iran's foreign minister, helped organize some of the conferences. Aides to then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended, as did Ali Akbar Salehi, the current head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, according to conference organizers and an Iranian diplomat.
"Much of what we discussed is still very relevant now," says William Luers, who served as president of the United Nations Association and organized some of the meetings Mr. Talwar attended in 2002 through 2006. "The elements of a deal are well understood."
Mr. Talwar joined the Obama-Biden team in 2008, as Mr. Obama campaigned for the presidency partly on a pledge of direct talks with Iranian leaders over Tehran's nuclear program. Many U.S. officials still fear Iran's nuclear ambitions could lead to a Mideast war, particularly given repeated threats of an Israeli attack.
Shortly after entering the Oval Office in 2009, Mr. Obama sent two personal letters to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stressing that the U.S. wasn't seeking regime change in Iran and wanted to resolve the nuclear dispute peacefully, according to American and Iranian officials briefed on the correspondence. The Obama administration at the time saw Mr. Khamenei, who is the ultimate arbiter on Iran's foreign policy, as the only leader in Tehran powerful enough to deliver a compromise on the nuclear issue.
Mr. Khamenei was initially "seduced" by Mr. Obama's overtures, according to one Western official who discussed the issue with the Iranian cleric. But Iran's 2009 presidential election, marred by charges of fraud, returned Mr. Ahmadinejad to office. His hard-line stance—among other things, he threatened to destroy Israel—doused hopes for a U.S.-Iranian detente.
U.S. diplomacy with Iran picked up pace after Mr. Rouhani's surprise June election. Mr. Rouhani had campaigned to improve ties with the West. Mr. Obama quickly sought to capitalize on what he saw as an opening.
Just days after Mr. Rouhani's August inauguration, Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, a frequent mediator, traveled to Tehran and emphasized to Iran's leadership the White House's desire for direct talks, according to a senior Iranian official. The same week, a former top State Department official under Mr. Obama, Jeffrey Feltman, visited Iran as part of a U.N. mission and was struck by the "dramatically different tone" as Iranian diplomats espoused their willingness to engage with Washington.
Mr. Rouhani's election also re-energized contacts between the Americans and Iranians who met years earlier, along with Mr. Talwar, in Europe. U.S. and European officials briefed on Mr. Talwar's current diplomacy say they believe Mr. Obama has sought to build on the contacts Mr. Talwar established in Stockholm and the discussions he held there.
Mr. Zarif, now Iran's foreign minister, used these same contacts, particularly through New York's Asia Society, to communicate to the White House and State Department the steps Tehran's new government would be willing to take to address U.S. concerns about Iran's nuclear program, according to Iranian officials and American participants.
The Asia Society and the nongovernmental Council on Foreign Relations hosted roundtables for Messrs. Rouhani and Zarif on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September. The two men used them to explain Tehran's plans to American businessmen, former government officials, academics and journalists.
"For the first time in 34 years, the leaderships of both governments appear to be in sync and want a deal," says Suzanne DiMaggio, a vice president at the Asia Society, who says she helped facilitate communications between Messrs. Rouhani and Zarif and the Obama administration in September.
The White House has accelerated its discussions with Tehran on the nuclear program since then, with Mr. Talwar in the center of the diplomacy. He has represented the White House at all of the formal negotiations conducted between Iran and the global P5+1 powers, since 2009.
Mr. Obama personally reached out to Mr. Rouhani last summer. The U.S. president penned a letter to the new Iranian leader, stressing Washington's desire to end the nuclear dispute peacefully. Mr. Rouhani responded with similar sentiments.
Mr. Zarif, meanwhile, reconnected with prominent American foreign-policy officials he met while serving as Iran's ambassador to the U.N. in the 2000s. Mr. Ahmadinejad's government demoted Mr. Zarif, once seen as a star in Tehran's Foreign Ministry, and briefly forced him to live under a form of house arrest at a government think tank, according to Iranian and European officials. His re-emergence in August as foreign minister raised hopes in the West that Iran was serious about engagement.
Ms. DiMaggio of the Asia Society says she was among those in New York who contacted Mr. Zarif shortly after he was brought in to the Rouhani government. A veteran facilitator of informal contacts between Iranian and American officials, she held numerous meetings over the past decade with the U.S.-educated diplomat on ways to end the nuclear impasse.
This time, she says, it was immediately clear Mr. Rouhani's government was significantly altering Tehran's negotiating framework and might be willing to accept some of the nuclear limits the West was demanding in exchange for sanctions relief.
Ms. DiMaggio, just days before Mr. Rouhani's delegation was scheduled to arrive at the U.N., traveled to Washington and met with U.S. officials and advised high-level meetings in New York. "It was clear to me that the Iranians were describing an endgame to the crisis," she says. "I thought it was well worth testing."
The U.S. diplomacy has also been aided by Hossein Mousavian, a former top Iranian diplomat and now a visiting scholar at Princeton University. He was charged with treason by President Ahmadinejad and briefly jailed. Mr. Mousavian arrived in the U.S. in 2010, writing and commenting for American audiences on the outlines of a possible nuclear deal and rapprochement between Iran and the West.
U.S. and European officials said his presence has aided the West's understanding of Iran's position, as he previously worked closely with Messrs. Rouhani and Zarif. "Hossein has emerged as an unexpected asset," said George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Despite the bad blood between Washington and Tehran, Ms. Rice and Mohammad Khazaee, her Iranian counterpart during her time at the U.N., had sought to calm tensions over regional hot spots and avert miscalculations between American and Iranian naval ships in the Persian Gulf.
In September, the two diplomats closely coordinated by phone to try to arrange a direct meeting between Messrs. Obama and Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering, according to a senior Iranian official briefed on the conversations. Ms. Rice and Mr. Khazaee first tried to find a room at the U.N. headquarters for a brief meeting between their two leaders. The meeting never happened. Instead the two sides eventually agreed to a phone call shortly before Mr. Rouhani flew back to Tehran on Sept. 27.
Mr. Talwar led a team of American sanctions and nuclear experts who took part in meetings with Iranians in late October in Vienna. And he arrived in Geneva on Wednesday to take part in talks between the P5+1 and Iran.
Officials involved in the diplomacy say major differences still need to be bridged before an agreement can be reached on curbing Iran's nuclear program. Still, U.S. officials said the tone of discussions have changed dramatically over the year, since Mr. Talwar's secret outreach.
"I wouldn't say I'm blasé about" the talks, said one senior U.S. official who traveled to Geneva. "But I would say after the president of the United States has spoken to the president of Iran…it's no longer the Rubicon that it once was."
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