Secret US-Iran talks set stage for nuke deal

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Burns and Sullivan were accompanied in Muscat by National Security Council aide Puneet Talwar and four other officials. The senior administration officials who spoke to the AP would not identify whom the delegation 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 after the country’s summer elections.

Occurring just days after the U.S. and the other powers opened up a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan, the U.S. officials achieved some modest progress. They understood that the Iranians in Muscat at least had some authority to negotiate from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on the nuclear program and many other big Iranian issues.

Beyond nuclear issues, the officials said the U.S. team at the March meeting also raised concerns about Iranian involvement in Syria, Tehran’s threats to close the strategically important Strait of Hormuz and the status of Robert Levinson, a missing former FBI agent who the U.S. believes was abducted in Iran, as well as two other Americans detained in the country.

Hoping to keep the channel open, Kerry then made an official visit to Oman in May, ostensibly to push a military deal with the sultanate. Officials said the trip actually focused on maintaining Qaboos’ key mediation role, particularly after the Iranian election scheduled for the next month.

Hassan Rouhani’s June election to Iran’s presidency, on a platform of easing the sanctions crippling Iran’s economy and stated willingness to engage with the West, gave a new spark to the U.S. effort, the officials said.

Two secret meetings were organized immediately after Rouhani took office in August, with the specific goal of advancing the stalled nuclear talks with world powers. Another pair of meetings took place in October.

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