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Nov 25, 2013
Top U.S. diplomats spent months meeting with Iranians in a series of secret, bilateral negotiations that hammered out most of the details of the nuclear deal with the Islamic republic – an agreement that is being criticized by Israel and some in Congress as giving away too much in exchange for too little.
The talks, most of which were held in Oman, included sitting down face-to-face with representatives from the regime of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Associated Press has revealed.
On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the bargain that Iran reached with the U.S. and the five other world powers ‘a historic mistake.’
President Barack Obama phoned Netanyahu from aboard Air Force on Sunday night in an attempt to assuage his fears.
The agreement sees Iran promising to scale back its uranium enrichment – a key precursor to producing a nuclear weapon – for six months in exchange for receiving $7billion in sanctions being lifted.
Netanyahu has long lobbied against the deal because he believes it leaves Iran’s military nuclear capabilities largely intact, while giving Iran relief from painful economic sanctions, undermining negotiations on the next stage.
‘Today the world became a much more dangerous place because the most dangerous regime in the world made a significant step in obtaining the most dangerous weapons in the world,’ Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday.
The one-on-one discussions between Iran and the United States were personally authorized by President Barack Obama, who has long tried to open up the lines of dialogue between the Iranian government and the United States.
The talks were kept hidden even from America’s closest friends, including its negotiating partners and Israel, until two months ago, and that may explain how the nuclear accord appeared to come together so quickly after years of stalemate and fierce hostility between Iran and the West.
But the secrecy of the talks may also explain some of the tensions between the U.S. and France, which earlier this month balked at a proposed deal, and with Israel, which is furious about the agreement and has angrily denounced the diplomatic outreach to Tehran.
The talks were held in the Middle Eastern nation of Oman and elsewhere with only a tight circle of people in the know, the AP learned. Since March, 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.
The last four clandestine meetings, held since Iran’s reform-minded President Hassan Rouhani was inaugurated in August, produced much of the agreement later formally hammered out in negotiations in Geneva among the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran, said three senior administration officials. All spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss by name the highly sensitive diplomatic effort.
The talks were brokered by Sultan Qaboos, the British-educated monarch of Oman who has been careful to maintain good relations to with Iran and the West.
The deal reached in Geneva, Switzerland, this weekend is only short-term – just six months.
Negotiators on both sides say that the temporary solution buys them time for a broader, more comprehensive bargain.
Iran will gain about $7billion in eased sanctions. About $4.2 billion will come from oil sales. Another $1.5 billion more would come from imports of gold and other precious metals, petrochemical exports and Iran’s auto sector.
In exchange, Iran must stop enriching uranium, stop building additional centrifuges that enrich the uranium.
Additionally, its highest-grade uranium – 20percent, which is closest to what is needed to create a nuclear weapon – must be diluted or destroyed.
However, Iran can keep its current stockpile of 16,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium – which takes longer to convert into the material needed for a weapon.
The Obama Administration claims that the six-month halt, combined with the destruction of the higher-enriched uranium, adds two months to the time it could take Iran to develop a weapon.
Officials described the first 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.
They included exchanges between then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, now Obama’s national security adviser, and Iran’s envoy to the world body, the officials said. National Security Council aide Puneet Talwar was also involved, the officials said.
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. Obama dispatched the group shortly after the six powers opened a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in late February.
At the time, those main nuclear negotiations were making little progress, and the Iranians had little interest in holding bilateral talks with the United States on the sidelines of the meeting out of fear that the discussions would become public, the U.S. officials said.
So, with the assistance of Sultan Qaboos, officials in both countries began quietly making plans to meet in Oman. Burns, Sullivan and a small team of U.S. technical experts arrived on a military plane in mid-March for the meeting with the Iranians.
The senior administration officials who spoke to the 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 who were likely to remain key players even after the country’s elections this summer.
Israel isn’t the only U.S. ally to voice concerns over the deal. Saudi Arabia – the Sunni Muslim Middle East rival to Shiite Iran – has long taken a hard line against Tehran obtaining a nuclear weapon. France, too balked at the terms of the deal – even they that nation was part of the Geneva talks and eventually signed on.
In Congress, opposition in mounting, as well – from both side of the aisle.
Congressman Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed ‘serious concerns,’ saying the United States was ‘relieving Iran of the sanctions pressure built up over years,’ while allowing Tehran to ‘keep the key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capacity.’
New York Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer said he was ‘disappointed’ by the deal.
‘This disproportionality of this agreement makes it more likely that Democrats and Republicans will join together and pass additional sanctions when we return in December. I intend to discuss that possibility with my colleagues,’ he said in a statement.