Washington • The United States and Iran have agreed for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, according to Obama administration officials, setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.
Iranian officials have insisted that the talks wait until after the presidential election, a senior administration official said, telling their U.S. counterparts that they want to know with whom they would be negotiating with.
News of the agreement — a result of intense, secret exchanges between U.S. and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Barack Obama’s term — comes at a critical moment in the presidential contest, just two weeks before Election Day and the weekend before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy.
It has the potential to help Obama make the case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world’s major powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but it could also pose a risk if Iran is seen as using the prospect of the direct talks to buy more time.
It is also far from clear that Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, would go through with the negotiation should he win election. Romney has repeatedly criticized the president as showing weakness on Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat.
There is still a chance the initiative could fall through, even if Obama is re-elected. Iran has a long history of using the promise of diplomacy to ease international pressure on it. In this case, U.S. officials said they were uncertain whether Iran’s opaque supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had signed off on the effort. Even if the two sides sit down, U.S. officials worry that Iran could prolong the negotiations to try to forestall military action and enable it to complete critical elements of its nuclear program, particularly at underground sites.
Israeli officials initially expressed an awareness of, and openness to, a diplomatic initiative. But when asked for a response Saturday, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, said the administration had not informed Israel, and that the Israeli government feared Iran would use new talks to “advance their nuclear weapons program.”
“We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” Oren said, “rather that sanctions and all other possible pressures on Iran must be increased.”