On the heels of an Israeli television report last week that President Barack Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett has been holding secret talks with Iran, the Associated Press reported Sunday after a nuclear deal had been struck that the U.S. and Iran indeed engaged in secret face-to-face talks over the past year that were personally approved by Obama.
The talks were “kept hidden even from America's closest friends, including its negotiating partners and Israel” until just two months ago, according to the AP.
“President Barack Obama personally authorized the talks as part of his effort - promised in his first inaugural address - to reach out to a country the State Department designates as the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism,” the AP reported.
[sharequote align="center"]“President Barack Obama personally authorized the talks as part of his effort..."[/sharequote]
Based on information learned from unnamed Obama administration officials, the AP reported that the meetings occurred in the Persian Gulf nation of Oman and elsewhere “with only a tight circle of people in the know.”
The talks included Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Vice President Joe Biden's top foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan who since March met at least five times with Iranian officials.
Secretary of State John Kerry visited Oman in May hoping to keep the communication channels open. The reason for the trip given to journalists was a military deal with Oman but it was really focused on keeping the secret talks going with Iran after the Iranian election scheduled for that month, unnamed officials told the AP.
After President Hassan Rouhani took office, two meetings were “organized immediately” in August, followed by two more meetings in October, led by Burns and Sullivan. U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman joined the final meeting.
Keeping the talks hidden from American allies could be one reason behind the tensions between the U.S. and France during the negotiations as well as with Israel which has slammed what it calls a “bad deal.” [See separate story on Israeli reaction to the Geneva agreement.]
The report on Israel’s Channel 10 last week suggested that the direct talks that Jarrett had held with the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, was where the real deal was being hammered out and that the international negotiations underway in Geneva were merely a “facade.” Though the AP report on Sunday did not use the word “facade” to describe the Geneva talks, it did write that, “The last four clandestine meetings, held since Iran's reform-minded President Hassan Rouhani was inaugurated in August, produced much of the agreement later formally hammered out in negotiations in Geneva.”
The secret contacts “may explain how the nuclear accord appeared to come together so quickly after years of stalemate and fierce hostility between Iran and the West,” the AP wrote.
Here is how the AP described the stakes for President Obama and his legacy:
The diplomatic gamble with Iran, if the interim agreement holds up and leads to a final pact preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, could avert years of threats of U.S. or Israeli military intervention. It could also prove a turning point in decades of hostility between Washington and Tehran - and become a crowning foreign policy achievement of Obama's presidency.
But if the deal collapses, or if Iran covertly races ahead with development of a nuclear weapon, Obama will face the consequences of failure, both at home and abroad. His gamble opens him to criticism that he has left Israel vulnerable to a country bent on its destruction and that he has made a deal with a state sponsor of terrorism.
The AP described early contacts with lower-level U.S. and Iranian officials beginning in 2011 after the release of two American hikers from Iranian prison. Those contacts included exchanges between then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. National Security Council aide Puneet Talwar was also reportedly involved in the outreach efforts.
The AP report did not mention Jarrett as being involved in any of the direct meetings; however, her name has been mentioned at least twice in the Israeli media as being the key player in those talks. The latest report on Channel 10 said that she was involved in the secret negotiations for a year, held in various Persian Gulf states.
According to the AP, Obama only began telling U.S. allies about the secret talks in September, after the “historic” phone call he had with the new Iranian president. That would mean talks had been underway a full six months before the Obama administration let Israel, other Middle East allies and its own international negotiating partners know about the clandestine efforts.
The AP further reported that when Obama held “the most sensitive conversation” to brief Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even then he told him only about the two summer meetings, not the March talks.
“The last secret gatherings between the U.S. and Iran took place shortly after the General Assembly, according to the officials. There, the deal finally reached by the parties on Sunday began to take its final shape,” the AP reported.
Though some of the details in the AP report were similar to those reported on Channel 10, last week White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, that the Channel 10 report was “absolutely, 100 percent false.”