The New York Times reported this weekend that the Obama Administration has agreed to hold direct negotiations with the Islamic Republic of Iran regarding its nuclear program.
Both sides have reportedly agreed that the talks will not take place until after the presidential election, a senior administration official was quoted as saying. The Iranian representatives have told their US counterparts, who are not identified in the article, that they want to know who wins the election.
News of the alleged agreement — a result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term — comes at a critical moment in the presidential contest, just two weeks before Election Day and the weekend before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy.
…. Within the administration, there is debate over just how much uranium the United States would allow Iran to enrich inside the country. Among those involved in the deliberations, an official said, are Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, two of her deputies — William J. Burns and Wendy Sherman — and key White House officials, including the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, and two of his lieutenants, Denis R. McDonough and Gary Samore.
…. A senior American official said that the prospect of direct talks is why there has not been another meeting of the major-powers group on Iran.
The Times asserts that the Government of Israel was made aware of the initiative but suggested it was unhappy.
Israeli officials initially expressed an awareness of, and openness to, a diplomatic initiative. But when asked for a response on Saturday, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, said the administration had not informed Israel, and that the Israeli government feared Iran would use new talks to “advance their nuclear weapons program.”
“We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” Mr. Oren said, “rather that sanctions and all other possible pressures on Iran must be increased.”
Two former officials interviewed by the Times, former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns and Amb. Dennis Ross (from the Obama White House, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) — both of whom were closely involved in the sanctions and diplomatic debates over Iran at various times over the last eight years, offered qualified support for such an initiative after the election — regardless of who wins the November election. Both have indicated that a deal could be done that would permit Iran to continue enriching uranium at levels under five percent in exchange for the strictest possible inspection regime and resolving all outstanding questions posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about alleged research, testing and other work related to possible military uses of nuclear energy. The existing sanctions regime would be eased in phases as the nuclear deal was implemented.
The White House, though, swiftly denied the veracity of the Times‘s reporting:
It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections. We continue to work with the P-5 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally. The President has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that. It has always been our goal for sanctions to pressure Iran to come in line with its obligations. The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure.
That statement was quickly corrected by the White House when it added a “+1″ to the P-5, thus ensuring that Germany still felt part of the group.
Oddly, a self-described Iranian defector, who has made somewhat bizarre charges against the Islamic Republic in the past, published a news story alleging in the far-right website WorldNet Daily that President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei were on the verge of a cutting deal on the Iran’s nuclear program. The story also asserted that Iran is still testing nuclear weapons components and is very close to developing a nuclear warhead. Neither the US nor the Israeli intelligence communities has made a similar claim. Also dubious was his claim that Washington would quickly ease sanctions, as the president lacks the legal authority to lift sanctions enacted by Congress.
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