The goal on the American side, the U.S. officials said, was simply to see if the U.S. and Iran could successfully arrange a process for continued bilateral talks — a low bar that underscored the sour state of relations between the two nations.
Burns and Sullivan were accompanied in Muscat by National Security Council aide Puneet Talwar and four other officials. The senior administration officials who spoke to the AP would not identify whom the delegation met with, but characterized the Iranian attendees as career diplomats, national security aides and experts on the nuclear issue who were likely to remain key players after the country's summer elections.
Occurring just days after the U.S. and the other powers opened up a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the U.S. officials achieved some modest progress. They understood that the Iranians in Muscat at least had some authority to negotiate from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on the nuclear program and many other big Iranian issues.
Beyond nuclear issues, the officials said the U.S. team at the March meeting also raised concerns about Iranian involvement in Syria, Tehran's threats to close the strategically important Strait of Hormuz and the status of Robert Levinson, a missing former FBI agent who the U.S. believes was abducted in Iran, as well as two other Americans detained in the country.
Hoping to keep the channel open, Kerry then made an official visit to Oman in May, ostensibly to push a military deal with the sultanate. Officials said the trip actually focused on maintaining Qaboos' key mediation role, particularly after the Iranian election scheduled for the next month.
Rouhani's June election to Iran's presidency, on a platform of easing the sanctions crippling Iran's economy and stated willingness to engage with the West, gave a new spark to the U.S. effort, the officials said.
Two secret meetings were organized immediately after Rouhani took office in August, with the specific goal of advancing the stalled nuclear talks with world powers. Another pair of meetings took place in October.
The Iranian delegation was a mix of officials the Americans had met in March in Oman and others who were new to the talks, administration officials said. All of the Iranians were fluent English speakers.
The meetings encompassed multiple locations and U.S. officials would not confirm the exact spots, saying they did not want to jeopardize their ability to use the same venues in the future. At least some of the talks continued to take place in Oman.
The private meetings coincided with a public easing of U.S.-Iranian discord. In early August, Obama sent Rouhani a letter congratulating him on his election. The Iranian leader's response was viewed positively by the White House, which quickly laid the groundwork for the additional secret talks. The U.S. officials said they were convinced the outreach had the blessing of Ayatollah Khamenei, but would not elaborate.
As negotiators worked behind the scenes, speculation swirled over a possible meeting between Obama and Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September, which both attended. Burns and Sullivan sought to arrange face-to-face talks, but the meeting never happened largely due to Iranian concerns, the officials said. Two days later, though, Obama and Rouhani spoke by phone — the first direct contact between a U.S. and Iranian leader in more than 30 years.
It was only after that Obama-Rouhani phone call that the U.S. began informing allies of the secret talks with Iran, the U.S. officials said.
Obama handled the most sensitive conversation himself, briefing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Sept. 30 meeting at the White House. He informed Netanyahu only about the two summer meetings, not the March talks, in keeping with the White House's promise only to tell allies about discussions with Iran that were substantive.
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