WASHINGTON - The United States and Iran have agreed for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, The New York Times reported Saturday, citing Obama administration officials.
The announcement could be an indication of a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike aimed at stunting Iran's race towards a nuclear bomb.
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However, a spokesman for the US National Security Council denied the report.
"It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections," Tommy Vietor said in a statement. "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."
A senior administration official told the NYT that Iranian officials have insisted that the talks be delayed until after the presidential election next month.
It remains unclear whether Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has signed off on the deal. The understandings have been reached with senior Iranian officials who report to him, an administration official said.
Obama and Romney debating. (Photo: Reuters)
According to the report, the agreement was a result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that began early in President Barack Obama’s term.
The announcement, made just two weeks before the elections and a day before the final presidential debate, could tip the scale in Obama's favor by helping the president argue that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the effort to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
It is unclear whether Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, would go through with the negotiations should he be elected, considering that he has repeatedly criticized the president as showing weakness toward Tehran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat.
But there is also a chance the initiative could fall through even if Obama is re-elected. Iran has a long history of manipulating the promise of diplomacy to ease international pressure on it.
Israel concerned over talks
Even if the direct talks take place, officials in the US are concerned that Iran could draw out the negotiations in order to delay a strike, allowing it to make significant progress in its nuclear program. Officials told the NYT that Iran has indicated it wants to broaden the agenda to include Syria, Bahrain and other issues that have been plaguing the ties between Washington and Tehran.
According to the officials, the administration has begun an internal review at the State Department, the White House and the Pentagon to solidify its positions ahead of the negotiations. One option that is being considered calls for more restrictions on Iran’s enrichment activities in return for eased economic sanctions.
Israeli officials initially expressed awareness of the diplomatic initiative, the report said, but Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, told the NYT on Saturday that the administration had not kept the Jewish state in the loop, and that the Israeli government worries that Iran would use new talks to “advance their nuclear weapons program.”
“We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” Oren said, “rather that sanctions and all other possible pressures on Iran must be increased.”
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