Hours after multilateral “P5+1” talks on Iran’s nuclear program delivered an agreement in Geneva last November, the Associated Press reported that a separate secret track had been underway for months, with officials from the two governments meeting in Oman.
The AP reported that the first meeting had been held in March 2013, but one of the U.S. officials involved, Puneet Talwar, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month that the first meeting he took part in with the Iranians in Oman had in fact occurred months earlier, in the summer of 2012.
Last February, Biden attended the Munich Security Conference, where in the course of a wide-ranging speech he reaffirmed that the administration’s offer to engage with Iran, first made four years earlier, remained open.
During a brief question-and-answer session with the conference chairman at the end of the speech, Biden said the administration’s position remained that “we would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership.”
“We would not make it a secret that we were doing that,” he said. “We would let our partners know if that occasion presented itself.”
Biden made those comments some seven months after that first Oman meeting had taken place, and just weeks before another meeting was held, also in Oman. One of the participants in the secret talks was Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, who had recently moved across from a key position with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Four days after Biden spoke in Germany, then-State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was asked at a press briefing whether rumors of “direct, secret, bilateral talks with Iran” were true or not.
Nuland replied, “We have made clear, as the vice president did at Munich, that in the context of the larger P5+1 framework, we would be prepared to talk to Iran bilaterally. But with regard to the kind of thing that you’re talking about, on a government-to-government level – no.”
Despite Biden’s pledge of transparency in Munich, according to subsequent reports, not only did the administration not inform its partners that bilateral talks were taking place until much later, it also did not brief Congress on the matter.
“Even America’s closest allies were kept in the dark,” the AP reported on Nov. 24. It said President Obama first let Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in on the secret talks in September, after which the administration informed its P5+1 partners – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
A McClatchy-Tribune report the next day said, “The back channel talks were so delicate that Obama did not inform key U.S. allies, including other members of the six-nation diplomatic bloc negotiating with Iran, or Israel, until late September.”
On Nov. 26, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the U.S. had made it clear all along to its partners that “we would be open to bilateral discussions, and if anything developed or was serious, we would brief them on those. And the president briefed Prime Minister Netanyahu in September.”
‘Intentionally misled the American people’
When Secretary of State John Kerry appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Dec. 10 to discuss the Iran nuclear agreement, he was asked about Nuland’s denial back in February that secret talks were taking place.
“It turns out your department intentionally misled the American people about these negotiations taking place behind closed doors,” charged Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.).
“Honestly, I’d have to go back and check,” Kerry replied. “I became secretary of state I think February 1. I’m not sure what was said then or not said exactly, or what the state of play was, but let me find out.”
The P5+1 partners were not alone in not being briefed about the secret talks. Congress was also left in the dark.
Talwar, a participant in the secret talks, has been nominated as Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, and appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Dec. 11.
In his testimony, he said he had learned that “the finest hours for American foreign policy invariably occur when the State Department and the committee are working together toward the same end.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) read that line back to Talwar, then asked him, “In the conversations you and your colleagues had in this back channel with Iran, did you brief the chairman or ranking member of this committee about those talks, or did anyone brief them about those talks?”
“I did not,” Talwar replied. “I do not know if that occurred. I do not believe so.”
“Were any members of the Senate or the House or Congress briefed at all about these talks at any point?” Rubio asked.
“Again, I cannot speak for everybody, but from my perspective I do not believe that there were discussions.”
–Summer of 2012: U.S. officials Puneet Talwar and Jake Sullivan meet secretly with Iranian officials in Oman
–Feb. 2, 2013: Vice-President Biden at Munich Security Conference says the administration is prepared to hold bilateral talks with Iran. “We would not make it a secret that we were doing that. We would let our partners know if that occasion presented itself.”
–Feb. 6, 2013: State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, asked about rumors of “direct, secret, bilateral talks with Iran,” denies any are taking place.
–Late Feb. 2013: P5+1 hold nuclear talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
—Early March 2013: U.S. officials including Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, Talwar and Sullivan meet secretly with Iranian officials in Oman. Over the following months at least four more such bilateral meetings would take place.
–Aug. 4, 2013: Hasan Rouhani is sworn in as president of Iran. An exchange of letters between Obama and Rouhani would later be confirmed.
—Sept. 2013: Administration informs first Netanyahu, then P5+1 partners, of back channel talks that have been underway since at least mid-2012.
—Nov. 24, 2013: At the end of two more rounds of talks in Geneva, P5+1 and Iran reach deal offering Tehran limited sanctions relief in exchange for limited curbs on its nuclear program.
—Nov. 14, 2013: AP and other media outlets report on secret bilateral talks.
—Nov. 26, 2013: State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirms that secret talks in Oman had been taking place since last March, and that Obama had briefed Netanyahu about them in September.