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Revealed: Recent U.S.-Iran nuclear talks involved key officials (UPDATED)

Revealed: Recent U.S.-Iran nuclear talks involved key officials (UPDATED)

As Barack Obama settles into the Oval Office and begins his stated mission of reorienting U.S. foreign policy, there’s been a flurry of attention to exactly when and how Obama will open a direct dialogue with Iran, as he promised in his campaign. No question that will mark a break from the stinging rhetoric and halting, inconsistent diplomacy of the Bush years. But several sources told The Cable that the informal dialogue between senior Americans and the Iranians was much more robust in recent months than has been previously reported.

Over the past year, our sources confirmed, former Defense Secretary William Perry and a group of high-level U.S. nuclear nonproliferation specialists and U.S. experts on Iran held a series of meetings in European cities with Iranian officials under the auspices of the Pugwash group. (Pugwash, a group founded in 1957 by an international group of scientists, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for advocating for the elimination of nuclear weapons.) Perry served as a member of the Obama campaign’s national security working group.

Sources familiar with the meetings suggest they may be coming to light now via deliberate leaks to the Iranian media, by jockeying Iranian political power players trying to maneuver for advantage amid a shifting Washington-Tehran dynamic and their own upcoming elections in June. Among the Iranian officials who attended the Pugwash dialogues, The Cable has learned, was Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the Iranian ambassador and permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described Soltanieh as a technocrat whose presence at the Pugwash dialogue was significant. “He matters because when he writes these reports back to the regime, they will not be thrown in the trash,” Clawson said. “They will be looked at.”

Adding to the intrigue, one expert said to participate in the meetings was Robert J. Einhorn, sources told The Cable. Einhorn, who was a former assistant secretary of state and top nonproliferation advisor to the Hillary Clinton campaign (and later for Obama) and is currently at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is expected to be named undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Einhorn did not immediately respond to a request for comment. [UPDATE: Einhorn later e-mailed that he “did not participate in the Pugwash dialogue on Iran.” Asked further if he’d participated in the series of meetings being described, Einhorn said, “I have participated in no Pugwash meetings on Iran, nor any other meetings with Bill Perry on Iran. This is my last response.”]

Another source informed about the Pugwash dialogue said it was spearheaded by Pugwash’s General Secretary Paolo Cotta Ramassino, and consisted of four meetings over the past year, including an August meeting in The Hague and a two-day December meeting, the last one, in Vienna.  

The Pugwash-sponsored meetings, which focused on nuclear issues, are one series of what sources say are several “Track Two” discussions that have taken place between the two countries.

According to Jacqueline Shire, a former State Department nonproliferation expert who did not participate in the Pugwash forum, such Track Two dialogues typically work as follows: a think tank hand acting in an individual or institutional capacity initiates a project to hold discussions with Iranian government officials. In the process, he or she is likely to brief and be debriefed by the State Department in a quasi-official way. “He or she would check in before going and when he/she returns, to make sure the discussions don’t go too far afield,” Shire said. “One is acting in a private capacity, but not completely freelancing.”

While Iran and the United States have not had official relations since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, they have had some limited diplomatic interactions and plenty of back-channel contacts. Relations between the two countries were further strained by the 2003 discovery that Iran had been pursuing a nuclear program and by elements within the Bush administration which supported, at least for a time, a “regime change” policy toward Iran, as well as by Iran’s alleged support for militants in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian group Hamas.

Although the U.S. goal of persuading the Iranian regime to curtail its nuclear program and its support for militant groups in the region remains largely the same as during the Bush years, the new Obama administration has made clear that it intends to pursue a different approach to Tehran, including direct government-to-government talks.

“I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress,” Obama told Al Arabiya television in the first interview he granted since becoming president earlier this week. “And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.”

Along with reports that the State Department is drafting a letter to the Iranian leadership and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice‘s comments this week that the United States will pursue direct diplomacy with Iran, the Obama administration is undertaking an intensive policy review toward Iran even as it gets its new team members into place.

“I am seeing actions that seem to be really quite different,” says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington group that promotes U.S. engagement with Iran. “Obama was not president for even 20 minutes when he said ‘mutual respect.’ That is an Iranian buzz word. No one in the Middle East uses that more than Iran.”

“By [Obama] speaking directly to the Iranian leadership and the Iranian people the way he has,” says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, “and the way he may be answering Ahmadinejad’s letter, it presents his views unfiltered and it shows his respect for the Iranian nation. That’s very important.”

Meanwhile, the diplomatic calendar marches on. Most immediately, the Obama administration will send a representative, most likely Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns, to next week’s meeting in Berlin of the group of U.N. Security Council permanent five members plus Germany. The P5+1, as it’s known, has been the nucleus of recent international efforts to pressure Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment program in exchange for fuller international recognition and engagement and other incentives.

Contacted about an Iranian media report about alleged “secret” meetings involving Perry and Iranian officials, a U.S. government official working the Iran issue responded with a hint of rolled eyes: “This is just more of the same ‘Track II’ activities that so many of the participants love to think of as secret talks. There are a number of these things going on and it’s hard to keep them straight. This particular one would appear to be merely another in a series of meetings under Pugwash auspices, and there have been many of them.  Absolutely nothing to do with government to government.”

A person familiar with the Pugwash U.S.-Iran meetings declined to speak on the record or provide many details, except to confirm Perry’s participation and say that they involved four meetings in different cities in Europe over the past year. They were among the most interesting and most valuable of such meetings that have occurred, The Cable was told. (Another discreet, high-level Track Two dialogue series between the U.S. and Iran has been conducted by Thomas Pickering, the former undersecretary of state for political affairs and United Nations Association-USA cochair, who has cowritten about his experience with fellow participants William Luers, the former UNA-USA president and U.S. ambassador to Czech Republic, and Jim Walsh for the New York Review of Books.)

Messages left for Pugwash’s executive director in Washington and an e-mail to Perry were not immediately returned.

 “There is one constant in U.S.-Iranian relations,” one former official who dealt on Iran said. “The U.S. side is always looking for a way to speak directly to Iran. There are always ‘hints’ from the Iranian side that the best way to do that is to have quiet talks between intermediaries. Any attempt to have such a discussion …immediately devolves into publicity designed to make the U.S side look foolish.”

“If I were doing the negotiations [for the U.S. government], I would really press at a principals meeting [about] whether at the end of the day, we are going to accept” if Iran can enrich uranium to low grade or not, says former ambassador-at-large Robert Gallucci, now president of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. “I don’t think we have enough folks to [make a determination] actually yet in place” — not just assistant secretaries, but the principals, and deputies.

The kind of intensive policy review and decisions being undertaken now, Gallucci says, “are not going to be hammered out for a month or six weeks.” In the meantime, “what you have got to do now is set up your willingness to engage. Short of getting the outcome you want … you let it be known that we’re willing to talk right now, that we’re going to talk, not just as a reward for good behavior.”

Gallucci said that he himself has participated in various recent Track Two meetings on Iran, including one led by Luers in New York, although he thought there were no currently serving Iranian officials at any of those he attended.

“I had one contribution to this, and it was entirely unwelcome,” Gallucci said. “I said, ‘I don’t think we can have Iran producing highly enriched uranium. Therefore, I don’t believe we can have Iran produce low enriched uranium. That was very unwelcome, in the sense that it means, if all else [fails], we will have to act unilaterally.”

He also said that he had been asked to take a job in the Obama administration, but declined, preferring to contribute in a more project-based or advisory panel capacity (he previously served on a national security advisory board panel for CIA, he mentioned). He declined to say what the job he turned down was.

UPDATE: Jeffrey Boutwell, executive director of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, offered more perspective in a call Friday morning. He confirmed Pugwash was the sponsoring organization for the Track Two “Resuming constructive U.S.-Iranian dialogue” that occurred, as we reported, in four meetings in Europe throughout 2008 (three meetings in The Hague, and one in Vienna).

They were, he said, “wide-ranging, atmospheric discussions: how to move beyond the 1953 coup and the 1979 revolution; how to move beyond the historical baggage that is holding back U.S.-Iranian relations.”

“Then,” he added, “getting into the larger issues of US-Iran relations: security and the entire Middle East …. Iran’s wish to be integrated in the wider world ……Then a specific discussion about Iranian nuclear program: concerns about the motivation for Iran’s program, how to increase transparency …how to have its program be totally transparent and no misgivings about any military uses …how to achieve that last aim … and establish a constructive dialogue.”

Boutwell said there were currently serving senior Iranian officials participating in the discussions of equal or greater seniority than Ambassador Soltanieh, but declined to identify them.

He said that members of the group met in 2008 with several key members of Obama’s circle of advisors, “people now moving into positions of influence.”

He confirmed Perry’s participation, but would not comment on whether Einhorn participated or attended.

Boutwell added that it is his belief that it would be a “huge mistake for the administration to delay talking to Iran until after the June Presidential election, in the (mistaken) belief that somehow this will improve Ahmedinejad’s re-election chances. Iranians will vote mainly on domestic economic issues. More important, waiting until June sends the wrong signal… that the US is not serious about re-establishing dialogue, and the various issues that need discussion (enrichment, Iraq, Afghanistan) will only get more complicated over the next six months.” 

Photo: File; TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images