White House denies report that US and Iran agreed to direct talks

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The White House on Saturday denied a report in the New York Times that the United States and Iran had agreed to hold one–on-one talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the US presidential elections next month. But the White House reiterated that the Obama administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

And a Washington Iran analyst told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding that a senior US arms control official has held authorized talks with an Iranian official posted to Turkey.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Saturday. “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister also issued a statement Sunday denying direct talks with the United States. “Talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations,” Ali Akbar Salehi said at a press conference Sunday. “Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States.”

The Iran analyst, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore has had talks with an Iranian official posted as a diplomat to Turkey. The Iranian official was not identified.

US officials did not respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor late Saturday on the allegation a US official has had talks with an Iranian official or in what capacity.

Samore and State Department arms control envoy Bob Einhorn led the United States delegation to P5+1 “experts level” talks with the Iranians held in Istanbul July 3rd. Nuclear experts from other members of the P5+1–the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China–as well as the EU also attended the Istanbul experts level meeting. The Iran delegation to the expert level talks in July was headed by Hamid Reza Asgari, a legal adviser to Iran’s atomic energy organization and non-proliferation advisor to Iran’s national security council, and included Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the IAEA in Vienna.

American officials have not confirmed any bilateral meetings between the United States and Iran since 2009. In October 2009, then Under Secretary of State Bill Burns held a meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili on the sidelines of P5+1 talks in Geneva at which a nuclear fuel swap agreement was announced. But the fuel swap deal later collapsed amid infighting on the Iranian side.

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell reported late Saturday that “a senior administration official told NBC on Saturday that there have been back-channel talks between the U.S. and Iran about meeting bilaterally on the Iranians’ nuclear program – but that no meeting has been agreed to.”

“The official says that the backchannel talks have been done in full consultation with the allies – the P5 + 1 and Israel,” Mitchell further reported.

Diplomats from the P5+1 expect a new round of talks with Iran next month. It was apparently Iran that did not want to hold another P5+1/Iran meeting before the US elections, which are scheduled to be held November 6.

Ahead of the anticipated meeting, the US administration “has begun an internal review … to determine what the United States’ negotiating stance should be, and what it would put in any offer,” the New York Times report said. Officials involved in the review include “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.”

Israeli officials “initially expressed an awareness of, and openness to, a diplomatic initiative,” the New York Times report noted. “But when asked for a response on Saturday, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, said … ‘We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks.'”

Former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy disagreed, saying he strongly advocates more intensive efforts to talk with Iran in order to see if it would be possible to find common ground.

“The Iranians, in their heart of hearts, would like to get out of their conundrum,” Halevy told Al-Monitor in an interview Friday. “The sanctions have been very effective. They are beginning to really hurt.”

“What has happened, in order to meet public opinion, both Israel and the US governments have tied our own hands,” the former Mossad chief said. “In the end, you create an inherent disadvantage for yourself.”

“On Iran, you have to go much deeper,” Halevy said. “You have to understand what it is that makes Iran tick.”

(Photo: European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili attend a meeting in Istanbul April 14, 2012. REUTERS/Tolga Adanali/Pool.)