New White House WMD coordinator attended unofficial U.S.-Iran dialogue in his private capacity

New White House WMD coordinator attended unofficial U.S.-Iran dialogue in his private capacity

Gary Samore, the former Clinton NSC nonproliferation hand who has been tapped by the Obama White House to serve as the new U.S. government-wide coordinator on the prevention of WMD terrorism and proliferation, has told The Cable that he attended one meeting of a high-level, track-two dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program that was conducted on an unofficial basis in Europe this past year.

As The Cable reported Thursday, the track-two meetings between former U.S. officials, including Samore and former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, and current Iranian officials, including Iranian ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh, were convened by the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and were comprised of four meetings over the past year in Europe, three in The Hague and one in Vienna.

“Just to set the record straight, I now remember that I did attend one of the Pugwash meetings with Iran, I think it was last year in The Hague,” Samore said. “As I understand the ground rules, we’re not supposed to disclose who was there or what was said.”

In the absence of normal diplomatic relations, unofficial meetings between Iranian and U.S. figures, often conducted with a degree of secrecy, can take on a sense of magnified, even distorted importance. Public reports on the Pugwash meetings appear to have led Iranian officials to deny that “back channel” official dialogue with the Untied States was underway.

But the Pugwash dialogue was not a government-to-government dialogue, people involved make clear, and was neither initiated by the Bush or Obama administrations, nor the Iranian government, although it did involve at least two currently serving Iranian officials: Iran’s ambassador and permanent representative to the IAEA, Soltanieh, and Mojtaba Samareh-Hashemi, a senior aide to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“All the reports that say ‘Obama talks secretly with Iran’ are wrong,” Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, the secretary general of Pugwash and the key mover behind the dialogue told The Cable Monday. “These were not official negotiations. First of all, the dates of all our meetings were in 2008,” when the Bush administration was still in power.

“I think that we have had very good representation on the Iranian side,” Cotta-Ramusino, an Italian physicist who traveled many times to Iran to develop relationships of trust with Iranian players to help initiate the dialogue, continued.

He said that the dialogue brought many technical specialists to the table and that the topic of uranium enrichment was one of the main issues discussed.

“The basic point of the Iranians is they have the right as a matter of principle to uranium enrichment under the NPT,” Cotta-Ramusino continued, referring to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. “So how can we deal with this and on the other side, be absolutely reassured on nonproliferation concerns?”

Samore, who said he attended one of the Pugwash sponsored meetings in The Hague, said that he attended in his private capacity as a nonproliferation expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Asked about what it means when participants in an unofficial track-two dialogue end up taking “track one” government positions, Samore said there is no connection. As a private individual, he said, one can say whatever one thinks about the matter. As a government official, one must represent one’s government’s positions.

Asked if the fact that he had participated in such a dialogue might help reduce the conceptual obstacles to possible future official U.S. negotiations with Iran, Samore said, “I think there’s an advantage to have people in the administration who have some experience dealing with Iranian experts and officials. It gives you a stronger position to mount a diplomatic effort.

“Knowledge is better than ignorance,” Samore added.

He said it had not yet been determined to what extent he, as the incoming White House “WMD czar,” will deal with the Iran issue.

“Such [track-two] meetings, when they work, they are extremely useful for developing options for the governments involved,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund. “And for giving officials a road map towards resolution of the problem. [B]ecause these meetings are private and off the record, [participants are] much more candid in explaining their real positions and what compromises might be possible in ways they could never do as part of a formal” negotiation.

One person who would speak of the dialogue only on condition of anonymity said it was his belief it was leaked to the Iranian media last week by Iranian forces trying to counter Iranian conservatives arguing for rejecting the prospect of U.S.-Iran negotiations.