Secret US-Iran talks set stage for nuke deal

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The Geneva deal provides Iran with about $7 billion in relief from international sanctions in exchange for Iranian curbs on uranium enrichment and other nuclear activity. All parties pledged to work toward a final accord next year that would remove remaining suspicions in the West that Tehran is trying to assemble an atomic weapons arsenal.

Iran insists its nuclear interest is only in peaceful energy production and medical research. The U.S. and Israel have regularly threatened military action if they believe Iran is about to develop a nuclear weapon.

While the agreement early Sunday — late Saturday in Washington — was concluded to great fanfare and global attention, with Secretary of State John Kerry joining fellow foreign ministers in signing the deal and Obama then presenting it to the nation in a televised White House address, the path there couldn’t have been more secret.

With low expectations, mid-level American officials began in 2011 meeting their Iranian counterparts in Muscat, one of the Arab world’s most tranquil if overlooked metropolises. The process was guided by Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s diminutive but wily monarch, who has cultivated decades of good relations with the United States and his region’s two rivals: Sunni-controlled Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran.

Qaboos had endeared himself to the Obama administration after three American hikers were arrested in 2009 for straying across Iraq’s border. As a mediator he was able to secure their freedom over the next two years, prompting U.S. officials to wonder whether the diplomatic opportunity was worth further exploring.

Expectations were kept low for the initial U.S.-Iranian discussions. The officials skirted the big issues and focused primarily on the logistics for setting up higher-level talks. For the U.S., the big question was whether Iran’s leaders would be willing to secretly negotiate matters of substance with a country they call the “Great Satan.”

The private talks were also a gamble for the United States, which cut off diplomatic ties with Iran in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution and the taking of 52 American hostages held for 444 days after rebels stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. To this day the State Department considers Iran the biggest state supporter of terrorism in the world.

When Obama decided to send Burns and Sullivan to Oman, Iran was still being governed by the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose inflammatory rhetoric severely worsened the Islamic republic’s relations with the West.

Ahmadinejad’s contested re-election early in Obama’s presidency, followed by the violent Iranian crackdown on pro-reform protesters, had already severely tested the American leader’s inauguration pledge to reach out to America’s enemies.

The goal on the American side, the U.S. officials said, was simply to see if the U.S. and Iran could successfully arrange a process for continued bilateral talks — a low bar that underscored the sour state of relations between the two nations.

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