Omani ‘back chan­nel’ & Iran nu­clear deal

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - David Ig­natius

ONE of the mysteries of Cam paign 2016 is why the Iran nu­clear deal has van­ished as an is­sue. But a new book re­veals some star­tling de­tails about how the diplo­macy with Tehran be­gan in se­cret, long be­fore re­form­ers took power there, and the cru­cial role played by pre­sump­tive Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Hillary Clin­ton. The diplo­matic nar­ra­tive is laid out in “Al­ter Egos,” by New York Times White House cor­re­spon­dent Mark Landler. He’s the first to dis­close the full ex­tent of the Omani “back chan­nel” to Iran that opened in 2009 through a colour­ful fixer named Salem bin Nasser al-Is­maily.

Landler’s ac­count shows how early and ex­ten­sively Clin­ton and her State De­part­ment staff were in­volved in the Iran talks, de­spite her ini­tial wari­ness. And in a cam­paign in which Don­ald Trump of­ten ad­vo­cates a blun­der­buss ap­proach to for­eign af­fairs, this story is a re­minder that break­throughs of­ten come via strange and in­vis­i­ble path­ways — ones that, in this case, the ad­min­is­tra­tion some­times sought to ob­scure. The Is­maily con­tacts be­gan in May 2009, just four months af­ter Pres­i­dent Obama had taken of­fice, when Den­nis Ross, a top ad­viser to then-Sec­re­tary Clin­ton, met 51-year-old Omani at State Dept.

At that first meet­ing, the Omani sur­prised the Amer­i­cans with “an of­fer by Iran to ne­go­ti­ate” about the nu­clear pro­gramme, writes Landler. Obama had al­ready sent a se­cret let­ter to Iran’s Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei propos­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions but had re­ceived a dif­fi­dent re­sponse. “Is­maily as­sured Ross he could bring the Ira­ni­ans to the ta­ble” and that Oman would be “an ideal venue for se­cret ne­go­ti­a­tions.” Both prom­ises turned out to be true. First, though, came the up­roar of the Ira­nian pres­i­den­tial election in 2009 and the bru­tal sup­pres­sion of the “Green Rev­o­lu­tion.” Some crit­ics have ar­gued that Obama’s ea­ger­ness for a diplo­matic open­ing to Iran blunted the US re­sponse to the stolen vic­tory by hard-liner Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad.

But the Omani me­di­a­tion track con­tin­ued. Af­ter Iran seized three Amer­i­can hik­ers in July 2009, Is­maily se­cretly be­gan ne­go­ti­at­ing their re­lease. The first was freed in Septem­ber 2010, the other two a year later. Ross and a col­league trav­elled to Oman in De­cem­ber 2010 to hear more about the chan­nel. Clin­ton had a sim­i­lar ex­ploratory talk with Oman’s sul­tan in Jan­uary 2011, though she wrote that she ini­tially saw the open­ing as a “long shot.”

John Kerry was jump­ing into the Omani chan­nel even be­fore he be­came sec­re­tary of state. He got to know Is­maily dur­ing the hiker ne­go­ti­a­tions and made sev­eral vis­its to Oman in 2011 and early 2012. Kerry also met the Omani in­ter­me­di­ary in Lon­don, Rome and Wash­ing­ton. “In his zeal to jump-start the ne­go­ti­a­tions, Kerry passed sev­eral mes­sages to the Ira­ni­ans through Is­maily,” ac­cord­ing to Landler. One of these mes­sages may have been cru­cial: Kerry, still a se­na­tor and thus not for­mally speak­ing for the ad­min­is­tra­tion, sug­gested that un­der a nu­clear agree­ment, the Ira­ni­ans would be able to en­rich ura­nium — Tehran’s base­line de­mand. “In some ways Kerry and his en­thu­si­as­tic Omani go-be­tween were merely cut­ting to the chase,” writes Landler.

More se­cret meet­ings through the Omani chan­nel fol­lowed in 2012 with Clin­ton’s top aides, Deputy Sec­re­tary Bill Burns and Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sul­li­van. Then, in 2013, the train be­gan to ac­cel­er­ate with Kerry’s ap­point­ment as sec­re­tary of state and Has­san Rouhani’s election as pres­i­dent of Iran. By the end of that year, an in­terim nu­clear agree­ment had been reached. Sul­li­van ex­plained in an email that al­though Clin­ton was scep­ti­cal at first about the Omani con­tacts, they proved im­por­tant: “Without that chan­nel, we likely would have spent the fall of 2013 try­ing to fig­ure out who to talk to and how.”

Landler’s book also un­der­lines the ques­tion of whether the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s me­dia cam­paign, led by deputy na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Ben Rhodes, em­pha­sised the postRouhani chapters in its pub­lic telling of the story and ob­scured the largely un­no­ticed early con­tacts through the Omani chan­nel. A New York Times Mag­a­zine pro­file of Rhodes ar­gued last month that this im­pres­sion “was largely man­u­fac­tured for the pur­pose for sell­ing the deal.”

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand was also vis­i­ble in the State De­part­ment’s dele­tion of footage of a De­cem­ber 2013 news brief­ing ask­ing about se­cret ne­go­ti­a­tions with Tehran. The Iran nu­clear agree­ment de­serves more at­ten­tion in this cam­paign. Kerry and Obama may have con­cluded it, but Clin­ton helped get it started. Trump needs to ex­plain why the world would be safer without this deal and how he would have ne­go­ti­ated a bet­ter one. And the ad­min­is­tra­tion needs to ex­plain why it opted for se­crecy on a land­mark agree­ment. — Cour­tesy: The Wash­ing­ton Post

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