Ca­reer diplo­mat steered the talks qui­etly in rounds of ne­go­ti­a­tions

The Washington Times Daily - - Front Page - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Away from pomp and fan­fare sur­round­ing the mul­ti­party talks in Geneva that re­sulted in this weekend’s nu­clear deal with Iran, se­nior Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials and other sources are now re­veal­ing that U.S. and Iran ac­tu­ally, and very se­cretly, have been en­gaged in high-level di­rect talks for more than a year.

The dis­cus­sions were kept hid­den even from the four other na­tions ne­go­ti­at­ing with Iran in Geneva along­side the U.S. and from key ally Is­rael, ac­cord­ing to The As­so­ci­ated Press, which re­ported Sun­day that Deputy Sec­re­tary of State Wil­liam J. Burns and Jake Sul­li­van, Vice Pres­i­dent Joseph R. Bi­den’s top for­eign pol­icy ad­viser, have met face-to-face at least five times with Ira­nian of­fi­cials since March.

The AP’s rev­e­la­tion was con­firmed in the main later Sun­day to The Wash­ing­ton Times by a U.S. of­fi­cial on con­di­tion

of anonymity. The rev­e­la­tion was a sur­prise in Wash­ing­ton’s for­eign-pol­icy cir­cles since the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has spent re­cent months at­tempt­ing to craft an al­ter­na­tive nar­ra­tive around the high-stakes nu­clear talks, which have ac­cel­er­ated at un­prece­dented pace re­cently and trig­gered ten­sion be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Is­rael, long seen as Amer­ica’s clos­est ally in the Mid­dle East.

In pub­lic, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­la­tions with Iran had ap­peared to be led by Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry and Wendy Sher­man, un­der­sec­re­tary for po­lit­i­cal af­fairs who was be­lieved to be Wash­ing­ton’s chief ne­go­tia­tor with Iran dur­ing the re­cent mul­ti­party nu­clear talks.

But re­port­edly Mr. Burns — a lone ca­reer diplo­mat among the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s se­nior for­eign-pol­icy cir­cle of po­lit­i­cally ap­pointed of­fi­cials — has been se­cretly sit­ting in the driver’s seat the whole time, meet­ing with Ira­nian of­fi­cials in the Mid­dle East­ern na­tion of Oman and else­where with only a tight cir­cle of of­fi­cials in the know.

The U.S. of­fi­cial who spoke with The Times on con­di­tion of anonymity said Oman had played a key “in­ter­me­di­ary” role be­tween the U.S. and Iran over the past year.

While other of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Mr. Sul­li­van, Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser Su­san E. Rice and Puneet Tal­war, a key Mid­dle East spe­cial­ist in the White House, also have been in­volved in the se­cret di­rect talks, Mr. Burns’s be­hindthe-scenes role is the only one to stretch back to the fi­nal years of the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.

In July 2008, Mr. Bush dis­patched Mr. Burns, then un­der­sec­re­tary for po­lit­i­cal af­fairs, to Geneva to per­son­ally re­ceive a re­sponse from Iran to what at the time was a U.N. of­fer to re­sume talks over the nu­clear pro­gram on the con­di­tion that the Is­lamic repub­lic agreed to halt its ura­nium en­rich­ment ac­tiv­i­ties.

The mis­sion ap­peared to be a fail­ure, but it was a rare and di­rect con­tact be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Tehran that set in mo­tion what of­fi­cials now de­scribe as a del­i­cate, back-chan­nel diplo­matic ma­trix — ap­par­ently con­structed and led by Mr. Burns — that ul­ti­mately paved the way to this weekend’s break­through deal.

Upon his inau­gu­ra­tion in 2009, Pres­i­dent Obama cleaned house by re­mov­ing nearly all of the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s po­lit­i­cally ap­pointed na­tional se­cu­rity op­er­a­tors.

Mr. Burns, how­ever, was kept on the job at the State Depart­ment and qui­etly given the task of hold­ing a sec­ond dis­crete meet­ing with a top Ira­nian ne­go­tia­tor as the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity sought to boost the then-fail­ing nu­clear talks.

A 31-year vet­eran of the depart­ment, Mr. Burns is con­sid­ered a ca­reer for­eign ser­vice of­fi­cer, a rare breed of Amer­i­can diplo­mat revered by Foggy Bot­tom’s rank and file for the po­lit­i­cal neu­tral­ity they are be­lieved to es­pouse.

When Mr. Obama moved to pro­mote him to deputy sec­re­tary of state in 2011, it was con­sid­ered some­thing of a rare move, mak­ing Mr. Burns only the sec­ond ca­reer State Depart­ment of­fi­cial in his­tory to reach the depart­ment’s key No. 2 po­si­tion — a slot tra­di­tion­ally cov­eted as a place for a sit­ting pres­i­dent to in­ject his own po­lit­i­cally ap­pointed for­eign pol­icy op­er­a­tives.

Once in the job, Mr. Burns was able to use his new weight to ac­cel­er­ate pre­vi­ous at­tempts to cre­ate an open­ing with Iran. He is be­lieved, par­tic­u­larly, to have seized on an op­por­tu­nity that had arisen dur­ing Mr. Obama’s first term when it be­came clear that Tehran might be in­ter­ested in ne­go­ti­at­ing the re­lease of three Amer­i­can hik­ers de­tained by Ira­nian au­thor­i­ties in 2009.

Ac­cord­ing to The As­so­ci­ated Press re­port, which cited U.S. of­fi­cials speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tiv­ity of the talks, ef­forts to win the re­lease of the hik­ers turned out to be in­stru­men­tal to the fu­ture of the nu­clear talks.

Af­ter fa­cil­i­tat­ing the re­lease of the hik­ers to the U.S., Sultan Qa­boos of Oman of­fered him­self as a me­di­a­tor in 2011 for a deeper U.S.-Iran rap­proche­ment and the se­cret in­for­mal dis­cus­sions be­tween mid-level of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton and Tehran be­gan.

The Wall Street Jour­nal re­ported early this month that Mr. Obama tapped Mr. Tal­war, his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s top Iran spe­cial­ist, to en­gage in di­rect meet­ings and phone con­ver­sa­tions with Ira­nian For­eign Min­istry of­fi­cials. Cit­ing un­named U.S. and Mid­dle East­ern of­fi­cials, the re­port said that some of the con­tacts in­volv­ing Mr. Tal­war took place in Oman’s an­cient cap­i­tal of Mus­cat, less than 200 miles across the Per­sian Gulf from Iran.

The ini­tial con­ver­sa­tions were re­port­edly fo­cused on the lo­gis­tics of set­ting up higher-level talks. The dis­cus­sions in­clud­ing face-to-face talks at undis­closed lo­ca­tions be­yond Oman and re­port­edly also in­cluded ex­changes with other se­nior Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Ms. Rice, who was serv­ing at the time as the U.S. am­bas­sador to the U.N.

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 U.S., Bri­tain, France, Rus­sia, China, Ger­many and Iran.

The Mid­dle East news web­site AlMon­i­tor, mean­while, re­ported that Mr. Burns has been qui­etly in­volved on the side­lines of the re­cent nu­clear talks in Geneva but has not stayed at the main diplo­matic ho­tel in the Swiss city, the In­ter­con­ti­nen­tal, where many of the ne­go­ti­a­tions have taken place.

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