U.S.-Iran Thaw Grew From Years Of Behind-the-Scenes Talks

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from The Wall Street Journal,

Secret Efforts Planted Seeds for Obama Call With Rouhani.

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.

Mr. Obama had empowered the administration’s top Iran specialist, Puneet 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.

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 leaders.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

“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. 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.

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.

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.

“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.

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