(USA TODAY) The deal reached Saturday to slow Iran's nuclear weapons program followed more than four years of diplomacy by the Obama administration that gained momentum with a series of secret meetings in the summer and fall with U.S. officials and advisers to newly elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
At President Obama's behest, two high-ranking administration officials met secretly with Iranian leaders, the first high-level contacts between the rival nations in more than three decades.
William Burns, the deputy secretary of State, and Jake Sullivan, top foreign policy adviser to Vice President Biden, met with officials at least four times since Rouhani's inauguration in August.
U.S. officials began quietly to notify allies of the Iran contacts after Obama and Rouhani spoke by phone on Sept. 27, officials said. Obama himself briefed one prominent Iran critic — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — during a White House meeting on Sept. 30.
The Associated Press first published details of the secret contacts with Iranian officials on Sunday. Two administration officials confirmed the details to USA TODAY on the condition they not be named because of the sensitivity of the ongoing negotiations with Iran.
The secrecy of the talks may also explain some of the tensions between the United States and France, which earlier this month balked at a proposed deal, and with Israel, which is furious about the agreement and has angrily denounced the diplomatic outreach to Tehran.
Obama personally authorized the talks as part of his effort — promised in his first inaugural address — to reach out to a country the State Department designates as the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism.
Burns, Sullivan and the Iranian officials met in Oman, a U.S. ally located across the Persian Gulf from Iran. They met at least five times since March, the administration officials said.
Talks gained momentum after Rouhani took office in August, and most of the progress took place in the four meetings since then. Those details were then put in place in Geneva in the larger talks between the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran, the officials said.
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.
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's secret program
Iran insists its nuclear interest is only in peaceful energy production and medical research.
However, the intense secrecy that cloaked Iran's development of its nuclear program, which was long suspected but made public in 2003 by an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that said Iran was hiding the true extent of the program.
If successful, the U.S. diplomacy with Iran could reduce the tensions that have built steadily over the last decade, as both Israeli and U.S. officials have talked openly about military intervention to keep Iran from building nuclear weapons. In 1981, Israeli bombers wiped out a nuclear reactor in Iraq that was believed to be the heart of that nation's nuclear program, and another Israeli raid in 2007 destroyed a nuclear plant in neighboring Syria.
The deal could also reverse more than 30 years of hostility between Washington and Tehran, which became toxic after Iranian students overran the U.S. Embassy there and held diplomats hostage from November 1979 and January 1981. Such a change would become a major diplomatic achievement for Obama.
But if the deal collapses, or if Iran covertly races ahead with development of a nuclear weapon, Obama will face the consequences of failure, both at home and abroad. His gamble opens him to criticism that he has left Israel vulnerable to a country bent on its destruction and that he has made a deal with a state sponsor of terrorism.
Obama first authorized reaching out to Iran shortly after he took office in January 2009. He and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, exchanged letters, but the initiative fizzled and essentially died after the June 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which spurred protests on Iranian streets and a violent crackdown.
U.N.-CONNECTED AGENCY: At heart of Iranian nuclear deal
The next month, relations seemed at another low when Iran detained three American hikers who had strayed across the Iranian border from Iraq.
Ironically, efforts to win the release of the hikers turned out to be instrumental in making the clandestine diplomacy possible.
Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said was a key player, facilitating the eventual release of the hikers — the last two of whom returned to the United States in 2011 — and then offering himself as a mediator for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. The secret informal discussions between midlevel officials in Washington and Tehran began.
Officials described those early contacts as exploratory discussions focused on the logistics of setting up higher-level talks. The discussions happened through numerous channels, officials said, including face-to-face talks at undisclosed locations. They included exchanges between then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, now Obama's national security adviser, and Iran's envoy to the world body, the officials said. National Security Council aide Puneet Talwar was also involved, the officials said.
The talks took on added weight eight months ago, when Obama dispatched Burns, Sullivan and five other officials to meet with their Iranian counterparts in the Omani capital of Muscat. Obama dispatched the group shortly after the six powers opened a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in late February.
At the time, those main nuclear negotiations were making little progress, and the Iranians had little interest in holding bilateral talks with the United States on the sidelines of the meeting out of fear that the discussions would become public, the U.S. officials said.
So, with the assistance of Sultan Qaboos, officials in both countries began quietly making plans to meet in Oman. Burns, Sullivan and a small team of U.S. technical experts arrived on a military plane in mid-March for the meeting with the Iranians.
Administration officials would not identify the Iranians who met with Burns and Sullivan but called them career diplomats, national security aides and nuclear experts who were likely to remain in the administration of the next president after the June election.
At the time, U.S. officials said, the administration wanted to know if the two nations could simply talk with each other after decades of animosity.
Beyond nuclear issues, the officials said the U.S. team at the March Oman 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, Secretary of State John Kerry then visited Oman in May on a trip ostensibly to push a military deal with the sultanate but secretly focused on maintaining that country's key mediation role, particularly after the Iranian election scheduled for the next month, the officials said.
Election a turning point
Rouhani was elected in June after campaigning on a platform of easing Western economic restrictions that have devastated the Iranian economy. His willingness to engage the West gave new life to the diplomacy, 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.
Burns and Sullivan led the U.S. delegation at each of those sessions and were joined at the final secret meeting by chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman.
The Iranian delegation was a mix of officials the Americans had met in March in Oman and others who were new to the talks, administration officials said. All of the Iranians were fluent English speakers.
U.S. officials said the meetings happened in multiple locations but would not confirm the exact spots, saying they did not want to jeopardize their ability to use the same locations in the future. But at least some of the talks are believed to have taken place in Oman.
The private meetings coincided with a public easing of U.S.-Iranian discord. In early August, Obama sent Rouhani a letter congratulating him on his election. The Iranian leader's response was viewed positively by the White House, which quickly laid the groundwork for the additional secret talks. The U.S. officials said they were convinced that the outreach had the blessing of Ayatollah Khameni, but would not elaborate.
As negotiators continued to talk behind the scenes, public speculation swirled over a possible meeting between Obama and Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, which both attended in September in New York. Burns and Sullivan sought to arrange face-to-face talks, but the meeting never happened largely due to Iranian concerns, the officials said. Two days later, though, Obama and Rouhani spoke by phone — the first direct contact between a U.S. and Iranian leader in more than 30 years.
It was only after that Obama-Rouhani phone call that the United States began informing allies of the secret talks with Iran, the U.S. officials said.
Obama handled the most sensitive conversation himself, briefing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Sept. 30 meeting at the White House. He informed Netanyahu only about the two summer meetings, not the March talks, in keeping with the White House's promise only to tell allies about any discussions with Iran that were substantive.
The U.S. officials would not describe Netanyahu's reaction. But the next day, he delivered his General Assembly speech, blasting Rouhani as a "wolf in sheep's clothing" and warning the U.S. against mistaking a change in Iran's tone with an actual change in nuclear ambitions. The Israeli leader has subsequently denounced the potential nuclear agreement as the "deal of the century" for Iran.
After telling Netanyahu about the secret talks, the United States then briefed the other members of the six-nation negotiating team, the U.S. officials said.
The last secret gatherings between the U.S. and Iran took place shortly after the General Assembly, according to the officials.
There, the deal finally reached by the parties on Sunday began to take its final shape.
At this month's larger formal nuclear negotiations between world powers and Iran in Geneva, Burns and Sullivan showed up as well, but the State Department went to great lengths to conceal their involvement, leaving their names off of the official delegation list.
They were housed at a different hotel than the rest of the team, used back entrances to come and go from meeting venues and were whisked into negotiating sessions from service elevators or unused corridors only after photographers left.
Contributing: Associated Press