Secret Talks Pave Way For Interim Iranian Nuclear Deal

Linda Wertheimer talks to Laura Rozen, a reporter for Al-Monitor.com, about her reporting on the secret talks between the U.S. and Iran. Those talks preceded the interim nuclear deal reached in Geneva last weekend.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the U.S. and other world powers are part of a major public thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations. That includes not only a tentative agreement on Iran's nuclear program, but also high profile communications between President Obama and his newly elected Iranian counterpart. And now we know American and Iranian officials were engaged in secret talks well in advance of the official diplomacy.

One of the reporters who broke that story is Laura Rozen. She writes the blog The Back Channel for Al-Monitor.com. Laura, welcome to the program.

LAURA ROZEN: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So how did these secret talks take shape?

ROZEN: So there was a one-off meeting back in March even before the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, was elected in June. This was an Oman. I think there were Omani emissaries who the U.S. has used occasionally going back to the Clinton time when they need to talk to Iran.

This meeting, as I understand, in March went nowhere. Then, as you mentioned, Obama and Rouhani exchanged letters, also through the Omanis, and they designated emissaries. So there was a meeting in Oman in August and another one in New York in September before the United Nations General Assembly.

We saw during that week, September 26, Secretary of State Kerry and Iran's foreign minister, Javad Zarif, meet for 30 minutes, the first such sustained U.S.-Iran official contact in 30 years. And then the next day the phone call between Obama and Rouhani, speaking through a translator. That was brokered in these secret talks between the number two U.S. diplomat, Bill Burns, and his counterparts.

WERTHEIMER: Even though these talks started in March, way before the Iranian election, is it fair to say that without Hassan Rouhani they would not have happened, the new president?

ROZEN: I think that's exactly right. There was really no sustained channel until after August, with Rouhani being inaugurated and Zarif and two of his deputies being assigned, basically, by Iran to meet with their U.S. counterparts.

WERTHEIMER: It has been reported, since the news of these back channel talks first broke, that President Obama let the Israelis know about them in September.

ROZEN: The Obama-Rouhani phone call was September 27th and my understanding is that the United States notified the Israelis of these meetings September 28th, the next day. I'm not sure that the six countries that are part of the P5-Plus One with the United States were aware until this month, actually, November. As you know, there were these three meetings in Geneva on the nuclear negotiations.

There was a U.S.-Iran meeting at Oman right before the first one in October. And this is where I think the U.S. and Iran tried to put on paper very quickly to advance a nuclear deal. You know, what would you do for this? What would you do for this? The thought was, now that Iran is willing to talk to the United States, could we advance a nuclear deal more quickly if you had these direct conversations?

WERTHEIMER: Now, obviously we all think the idea of secret talks is very exciting, but isn't there always something going on behind the scenes?

ROZEN: I think that's exactly right. I mean what was most tantalizing about this was that they were secret. For instance, you know, the Iranians have not full-fledged come out and confirmed this story yet. I think it's sensitive on their side to this kind of new, fledgling U.S.-Iran contact. It just - it could've complicated things.

WERTHEIMER: Laura Rozen is a reporter with Al-Monitor.com. Thank you very much for doing this.

ROZEN: Thank you.

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