Obama advised Netanyahu of Iran talks in September

By Matthew Lee

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Nov. 25 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

In this Sept. 30, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. The U.S. and Iran secretly engaged in high-level, face-to-face talks, at least three times over the past year, in a high stakes diplomatic gamble by the administration that paved the way for the historic deal aimed at slowing Iran's nuclear program.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — On a warm day in Washington this fall, President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu huddled in the White House, each flanked by a handful of top advisers, including Vice President Joe Biden. Just three days earlier, Obama had held an historic phone call with Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani, the leader of a country Israel sees as a threat to its very existence.

In the confines of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Sept. 30, just after the high Jewish holidays, Obama revealed to Netanyahu that his administration had been engaged in secret, high-level diplomatic talks with the mortal enemy of the Jewish state. Netanyahu's immediate public reaction betrayed no surprise, but a day later he launched a full-frontal attack on Iran, delivering a blistering speech at the U.N. General Assembly in which he said the Islamic republic was bent on Israel's destruction and accused Rouhani of being a "wolf in sheep's clothing."

The White House meeting had been scheduled for about an hour, but continued on for 30 more minutes, leaving American and Israeli journalists crowded onto the portico outside the Oval Office to speculate about the discussions underway inside. The two men had and still have an uneasy relationship, and each blames the other for inconclusive results in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Yet In statements after the meeting, both leaders tried to display unity rather than airing their differences on Iran in public.

Neither mentioned Rouhani by name. Obama vowed to keep all options, including military action, on the table in order to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And Netanyahu said he welcomed Obama's assurances that Iran's "conciliatory words" must be matched by its actions. At they finished speaking, Obama turned to Netanyahu and said: "Are you hungry? I am. Let's go eat." The two leaders, along with Biden, then retreated to Obama's private dining room for a working lunch.

Israeli media reports now suggest that Israel's intelligence services were already aware of Obama's clandestine outreach to Iran, which had begun some seven months earlier, but senior U.S. officials have told The Associated Press that this was the first time America's closest Mideast ally had been formally notified that it was underway. In fact, at that point, and at Obama's personal direction, senior U.S. officials had met three times with Iranian officials in a high-stakes bid to address concerns about the country's nuclear program and explore possibilities for improved ties. Israel, Netanyahu has said, fundamentally disagrees with the administration's tactics.

On Sunday, just hours after Netanyahu denounced as a "historic mistake" an agreement forged between world powers and Iran to come clean about its nuclear program, Obama called the Israeli leader to reassure him of his vow not to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu again expressed his unease and was unconvinced. He urged the West to reconsider.

The two sides agreed to stay in close touch about their ultimate goal: to rid Iran of the threat of nuclear weapons.

And Obama is not apologizing.

Before Rouhani's election, while former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in power, a tense U.S.-Iran relationship seemed unavoidable.

But Obama was determined to test that. In March, a small hand-picked group of officials led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Biden's top foreign policy adviser, boarded a military plane for Oman to meet Iranian counterparts.

Their travel plans were not on any public itineraries. No reception greeted them as they landed.

It was at this first high-level gathering at a secure location in the Omani capital of Muscat, famous for its souk filled with frankincense and myrrh, that the Obama administration began laying the groundwork for this weekend's historic nuclear pact between world powers and Iran, The Associated Press has learned.

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