In one of the strangest articles on the relations between the U.S. and Iran, the New York Times reported on October 20 that Washington and Tehran had reached an agreement to hold one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The sources that provided the story, according to the newspaper, were “Obama administration officials.” They added that Iran only insisted that the proposed negotiations be held after the U.S. elections.
Yet in the sixth paragraph of the very same article in which Obama administration officials disclose the U.S.-Iranian agreement, the White House issued a firm denial that any final agreement had been reached. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor released a statement saying: “It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections.”
How was it possible that administration officials were telling one of the most prominent newspapers in the U.S. one thing, while other officials were saying something else? Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi also denied that there were any negotiations with America. Were there secret U.S.-Iranian negotiations, as the New York Times suggested, or were there not?
According to NBC News, a senior administration official offered the following explanation: there have been “back-channel” talks between the U.S. and Iran about setting up a more formal bilateral meeting between the two sides. Back-channel negotiations, by definition, are informal and do not involve government officials, but rather academics, former officers or retired diplomats. Because they are unofficial they allow the parties involved to deny their existence. Sometimes they are called Track-II negotiations. By referring to this possibility, NBC gave a plausible explanation for what occurred.
This was not the first time that there were contacts between the U.S. and Iran that were called “back-channel talks”. On May 4, 2003, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, Tim Guldimann , faxed what he argued was an Iranian proposal for a rapprochement with the U.S. to the Swiss embassy to Washington. It supposedly outlined the basis of a “grand bargain” between the two countries. The fax was promptly delivered to the Department of State. The back-channel proposal was not written by an academic but rather by the Iranian ambassador to France, whose sister was married to the son of Ayatollah Khamenei.
News of the “Guldimann Fax”, as it came to be called was leaked to the press. Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times blasted the Bush administration for not taking up the Iranian offer. Condoleezza Rice denied ever seeing the document. The State Department, however, examined the document carefully. There was a serious problem with the Guldimann Fax which plagues all back-channel diplomacy: was it a genuine offer from Tehran? Richard Armitage, who was Secretary of State Collin Powell’s deputy, told Newsweek that he could not determine what in the proposal was an authentic Iranian offer and what was the product of the creativity of the Swiss ambassador. Clearly back-channel initiatives are full of risks.
The Iranians validated Armitage’s doubts. Appearing on PBS four years later, Hossein Shariatmadari, who served as a personal spokesman for Ayatollah Khamenei, denied that the Guldimann Fax had ever been approved by Khamenei. Whether he was covering for his boss or not, the whole episode illustrated the problem of relying on a dialogue between countries that is not formally conducted by its representatives. Even in the case of the latest report earlier this week in the New York Times about a new U.S.-Iranian agreement, U.S. officials told the newspaper that they were not certain whether Ayatollah Khamenei approved of what the senior Iranians who were involved had done.
There is a belief in the journalistic community in Washington that the New York Times report originally came from the Iranians, who had the most to gain from publicizing the existence of the secret U.S.-Iranian talks. These same sources contend that only later the Iranian leak was corroborated by U.S. officials who were asked about it. The Iranians demonstrated how they could skillfully use such reports in the past. In 2003, the Iranians feared the Bush administration might strike militarily after it vanquished Saddam Hussein. The Iranians understood that newspaper reports about impending negotiations would help them avert any future Western military attack.
Ultimately, Iran agreed back in 2003 to start formal talks with the Europeans for a more limited goal of easing international pressures against it and keeping the UN Security Council from adopting a decision against Iran for at least three years. Tehran has also sought to use negotiations in order to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies. In the present case, news that the U.S. wanted to strike a separate deal this year outside of the framework of the P5 + 1 could help Iran undercut the international consensus over international sanctions.
But it is doubtful that in an election year the White House had anything to gain from the leak about a U.S.-Iranian agreement. Without clear specifics about what it actually gained from Tehran, the Obama administration would be exposed to charges that it was not firm at the negotiating table. Already the New York Times suggested officials were considering permitting Iran to continue with low-level enrichment in any future agreement (UN resolutions since 2006, in contrast, prohibit any enrichment). Whether the U.S.-Iranian contacts that were reported this week are being handled as back-channel negotiations, despite all the known pitfalls of this approach, or as formal secret talks, the Obama administration probably would have preferred that they not have been revealed at this precise time.