United States President Barack Obama employed representatives and experts to hold secret high-level talks with Iran and Syria months prior to his election as president, organizers of the meetings told Agence France Presse on Monday.
Over the past few months, Obama campaign and election officials, as well as nuclear non-proliferation experts, had several "very, very high-level" contacts with Iranian leaders, according to Jeffrey Boutwell, executive director for the U.S. branch of the Pugwash group, a Nobel Prize-winning international organization of scientists. Former defense secretary William Perry, who served in Obama's election campaign, also participated in some of the meetings, which included discussions on Iran's nuclear program and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Though Boutwell refused to name other participants, he said they were senior figures in the Iranian and US governments.
The United States and Iran have had no official diplomatic relationship since the overthrow of the Shah and the institution of the Islamic Republic, 30 years ago. The U.S. accuses Iran of developing nuclear weapons.
In his first television interview as president, conducted by the Muslim Al-Arabiya television network, Obama called Iranians "a great people," adding "the U.S. has a stake in the well being of the Muslim world."
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad affirmed the reports Monday that Obama officials had repeated contact with his country for some time prior to the U.S. elections. "Dialogue started some weeks ago in a serious manner through personalities who are close to the administration and who were dispatched by the administration," Assad said.
A group of experts, under the auspices of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) think tank, announced Thursday that they met for more than two hours in Damascus with President al-Assad. Obama transition team member and former Clinton White House adviser Ellen Laipson attended the meeting as well, they said.
The United States has accused Syria of protecting and aiding Hizbullah and Hamas terrorists, and of providing a channel for anti-U.S. Muslim militants to attack U.S. positions in Iraq.