Soon after he took office, President Barack Obama began a process ultimately designed to reestablish full US diplomatic relations with Iran, including a reopening of embassies, an Israeli daily reported Sunday. The initiative, part of a wider shift in America’s diplomatic orientation, aimed at reaching understandings with Tehran over suspending its nuclear program, Maariv claimed, citing “two Western diplomats very close to the administration.”
The initiative led to at least two US-Iran meetings, the report said. Israel was made aware of the contacts, and opposed them.
But Iran rebuffed the “diplomatic hand” offered by the White House, Maariv reported. The Islamist regime “opposed any sign of normalization with the US, and refused to grant a ‘prize’ to the Americans,” according to an anonymous Israeli source quoted by the paper.
The information — the lead item on Maariv’s front page, headlined “Obama offered to renew relations with Iran” — comes on the heels of reports earlier this month that the US and Iran held back channel contacts toward establishing direct talks over Tehran’s nuclear program. Both the White House and Iran denied those reports.
According to Maariv, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili for an hour in 2009, and one other meeting between officials from both sides took place as well.
Included in the diplomatic incentives package offered by Washington would be, in the first stage, the opening of interest sections in Washington and Tehran, with the possibility subsequently of expanding to full diplomatic ties, including US and Iranian embassies and ambassadors in each other’s capitals, Maariv claimed.
As part of restored diplomatic relations with Iran, Maariv reported, Washington was ready to hold senior level diplomatic contacts, to agree to reciprocal visits, to approve security cooperation between the countries, direct flights between the US and Iran, and the granting of visas to Iranians wishing to visit the US.
The report, if true, would indicate a readiness by Obama to oversee a sea change in American policy toward Iran. The two countries have not had direct diplomatic relations since the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981, when the Shah was overthrown during the Iranian Revolution and workers in the American Embassy held hostage for over a year. The US currently maintains a trade embargo with Iran and any diplomatic contacts are officially handled through third parties
According to Maariv, Iran also rejected the attempt to reestablish ties out of fear that the regime in Tehran would become weakened by normalization with Washington.
The meeting between Burns and Jalili was reportedly held in Geneva in October 2009, on the sidelines of talks between Tehran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, also known as the P5+1.
Those talks, which Jerusalem has characterized as a stalling tactic by Tehran to buy time to develop its nuclear program to weapon capability, have mostly failed, despite several attempts to hash over curbs on Iran’s uranium enrichment activities.
Last week, the New York Times and NBC reported that Washington has held secret contacts with Iran with the goal of holding one-on-one negotiations over their nuclear program. According to the report in the New York Times, Iran was open to the possibility, but asked to wait until after the American elections on November 6 so they would know who they were negotiating with.
The White House denied the report, but said it has always had an offer on the table for Iran to engage in direct negotiations.
In Jerusalem, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon said last week that he knew about the contacts and welcomed them, while Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said he hoped the Obama administration’s denial was true.
Iran’s nuclear program is widely believed to be for military purposes, a claim Iran denies.
Israel considers an Iranian bomb to be an existential threat and has reportedly lobbied for military action against the program, while the US and much of the West maintain that there is still time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince the Iranian government to abandon their attempt to develop a nuclear weapon.