WASHINGTON (AP) — With their destination and mission among America’s closest guarded secrets, the small group of officials hand-picked by President Barack Obama boarded a military plane in March.
The travel plans of the U.S. diplomats and foreign policy advisers were not on any public itineraries. No reception greeted them as they landed. But awaiting the Americans in the remote and ancient Gulf sultanate of Oman was the reason for all the secrecy: a delegation of Iranians ready to meet them.
It was at this first high-level gathering at a secure location in the Omani capital of Muscat, famous for its souk filled with frankincense and myrrh, that the Obama administration began laying the groundwork for this weekend’s historic nuclear pact between world powers and Iran, The Associated Press has learned.
Even America’s closest allies were kept in the dark. Obama first shared the existence of the secret diplomacy with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September, and only then offered a limited recounting of how long the discussions between Iran and the United States had been taking place.
The Obama administration then informed the other five nations negotiating alongside the U.S. — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. And since then much of their public diplomacy with Iran has focused on incorporating and formalizing the progress made in the private U.S.-Iranian talks.
The AP has learned that at least five secret meetings have occurred between top Obama administration and Iranian officials since March.
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, led each U.S. delegation. At the most recent face-to-face talks, they were joined by chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman.
It was at the final get-together that the two sides ultimately agreed on the contours of the pact signed before dawn Sunday by the so-called P5+1 group of nations and Iran, three senior administration officials told the AP. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to be quoted by name talking about the sensitive diplomacy.
The AP was tipped to the first U.S.-Iranian meeting in March shortly after it occurred, but the White House and State Department disputed elements of the account and the AP could not confirm the meeting. The AP learned of further indications of secret diplomacy in the fall and pressed the White House and other officials further. As the Geneva talks appeared to be reaching their conclusion, senior administration officials confirmed to the AP the details of the extensive outreach. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss by name the secret talks.