The deal between Iran and the West regarding its nuclear program was reportedly made possible due to secret talks that the United States and Iran held for more than half a year and were authorized by President Barack Obama himself.
The Associated Press (AP) revealed on Sunday, hours after the sides reached an agreement in Geneva, that the United States and Iran secretly engaged in a series of high-level, face-to-face talks since at least this past March, in a high-stakes diplomatic gamble by the Obama administration.
According to the report, the discussions were kept hidden even from America's closest friends, including its five negotiating partners and from Israel, until two months ago.
Obama reportedly personally authorized the talks as part of his efforts to reach out to Iran.
The talks were held in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman and elsewhere with only a tight circle of people in the know, AP learned. Since March, the news agency said, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden's top foreign policy adviser, have met at least five times with Iranian officials.
Three senior officials in the Obama administration revealed that the last four meetings, held since Iran's President Hassan Rouhani was inaugurated in August, produced much of the agreement that was later formally hammered out in negotiations in Geneva among the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran.
All three officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss by name the highly sensitive diplomatic effort.
According to the report, at the president's direction, the United States began a tentative outreach to Iran shortly after his inauguration in January 2009. Obama and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, exchanged letters, but the engagement yielded no results.
That outreach was hampered by Iran's former president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, whose re-election in a disputed vote in June of that year led to a violent crackdown on opposition protesters.
The next month, relations seemed at another low when Iran detained three American hikers who had strayed across the Iranian border from Iraq.
Ironically, the report indicated, efforts to win the release of the hikers turned out to be instrumental in making the clandestine diplomacy possible.
Oman's Sultan Qaboos was a key player, facilitating the eventual release of the hikers and then offering himself as a mediator for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. The secret informal discussions between mid-level officials in Washington and Tehran began.
Officials described those early contacts as exploratory discussions focused on the logistics of setting up higher-level talks. The discussions happened through numerous channels, officials said, including face-to-face talks at undisclosed locations.
The talks took on added weight eight months ago, when Obama dispatched the deputy secretary of state Burns, the top aide Sullivan and five other officials to meet with their Iranian counterparts in the Omani capital of Muscat, the officials said. Obama dispatched the group shortly after the six powers opened a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in late February.
The senior administration officials who spoke to AP would not say who Burns and Sullivan met with but characterized the Iranian attendees as career diplomats, national security aides and experts on the nuclear issue.
Hoping to keep the channel open, revealed the news agency, Secretary of State John Kerry visited Oman in May on a trip ostensibly to push a military deal with the sultanate but secretly focused on maintaining that country's key mediation role, particularly after the Iranian election scheduled for the next month.
Rouhani's election in June on a platform of easing 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.
U.S. officials said the meetings happened in multiple locations, but would not confirm the exact spots.
According to the officials, the U.S. began informing allies of the secret talks with Iran only after the historic phone call between Obama and Rouhani.
Obama handled the most sensitive conversation himself, briefing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during a September 30 meeting at the White House, they said. He informed Netanyahu only about the two summer meetings, not the March talks.
After telling Netanyahu about the secret talks, the United States then briefed the other members of the six-nation negotiating team, the U.S. officials told AP.
The last secret gatherings between the U.S. and Iran took place shortly after the United Nations General Assembly, according to the officials, during which the deal finally reached by the parties on Sunday began to take its final shape.