The informal secret talks taking place for months between the representatives of US President Barack Obama and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appear to have made strides forward. Some sources say they may reach an accord even before the resumption of nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers some time next month in Istanbul.
Where the secret talks are taking place varies according to the source: Some sources say Vienna; others a French village on the banks of Lake Geneva between Evian and Thonon-les-Bains.
The US and Iranian negotiators are described as high-ranking intelligence officials. Whereas the Americans report directly to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Iranians, who belong to the Revolution Guards outfit, send their reports to IRGC commander, Gen. Qasem Soleimani. He passes it on to Khamenei, who sends it back with instructions on how the delegation should next proceed.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources provide the following updates and insights on progress.
1. The secret channels of dialogue are proliferating: Believed to number three – the corridors of International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna, Ankara and Moscow – they appear to have earlier this month sprouted a fourth, a super-secret conduit known only to tight groups in Washington and Tehran.
2. About a week ago, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan found out that Ankara was not the only high road for US-Iranian interaction but that secret conduits had opened up without his knowledge.
New Turkish plan blends Iranian and Syrian issues
Erdogan had hoped his meeting with President Obama in Seoul later this month would end with him flying directly from South Korea to Iran to present Khamenei with Obama’s decisions.
This is unlikely to happen.
All the same, the Turkish prime minister is ready to present the US president a new plan which weaves the Iranian nuclear issue in with a formula for resolving the Syrian crisis. It consists of a package whereby Tehran would agree to stop enriching uranium to 20-percent purity in the first stage and then gradually open up its nuclear sites to IAEA inspection.
In parallel, Iranian leaders would try and persuade Bashar Assad to end the violence in Syria and enter into talks with the opposition on power-sharing reforms.
According to our intelligence sources, Hakan Fidan, director of the Turkish MIT intelligence agency, is handling Ankara’s dealings with Iran.
On a trip to Tehran last week, he informed Khamenei’s aides that refusal to combine the nuclear controversy with the Syrian issue in the same package as Ankara proposed would make Turkey abandon its neutral stance between the US and Iran.
Ankara would then join Western sanctions and embark on military action against the Assad regime with a view to establishing protected buffer zones in Syria.
Asked why Erdogan did not seem troubled by the Syrian ruler’s threat, conveyed to UN envoy Kofi Annan in Damascus on March 10, to send missiles against Turkish bases and military targets if their troops crossed the border, Fidan replied his government was ready to withstand the threat with US and European military backing.
Back-channel talks confirmed
3. Back to Iran, on March 12, the Washington-based Al Monitor (self-styled “Pulse of the Middle East”) ran a revealing interview with former US senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel, a close Obama associate and co-chairman of his intelligence advisory board.
After speaking at length about scenarios that could prod Israel into action against Iran, he was asked by the interviewer: So is it now bomb Iran or live with Iran with a bomb?
Exactly, Hagel replied: “We may eventually wind up with those choices. But I don’t think we’re there now. We’ve got some time, keep ratcheting up the sanctions, keep the world community with you.
“…You cannot push the Iranians into a corner where they can’t get out…You’ve got to find some quiet ways…”
The former senator hinted broadly at back-channel talks between the United States and Iran:
“I hope. I don’t see any other way around this,” he said. “Because you can’t deal with something… as explosive as this is out in public.”
Hagel must be presumed to have cleared his remarks with the White House.
Starting to wind sanctions down
4. Tuesday night, March 20, six days after President Obama’s ringing announcement ,“We’ve applied our toughest sanctions ever on Iran,” Secretary of State Clinton suddenly announced the administration had decided to extend exemptions from those sanctions to Japan and 10 European countries, Britain, Germany, Belgium, France, Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Spain, Holland and Poland.
This decision was made, said Clinton, because those countries had already significantly reduced their oil purchases from Iran. Clinton did not say whether they had undertaken to maintain the reduced level of their Iranian oil purchases, or if the exemption permitted them to buy more.
It was assumed that the exempted countries’ banks would also be allowed to deal with Iranian banks in order to pay for the oil.
They were let off the hook of financial sanctions as well by the same exemptions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources comment that this move appears to be part of a gradual ratcheting down by the Obama administration of sanctions against Iran, a strong indicator of substantial progress made on the secret US-Iranian talking track. The US president appears to have decided to reward Tehran by a major concession, albeit without admitting this in public.