Nov. 24, 2013 10:59 p.m. ET
The nuclear agreement between world powers and Iran is the product of two separate diplomatic tracks, one top secret and the other widely publicized—a risky gambit spearheaded by the White House that nearly derailed the talks.
For nearly five years, the White House drove a back-channel effort, personally overseen by President Barack Obama, which directly engaged Tehran and was concealed from Washington’s closest allies and even some senior U.S. officials. It ran alongside the formal negotiations, known as the P5+1 talks, in which the U.S. and five other countries negotiated with Iran.
Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, left, with Secretary of State John Kerry after the deal in Geneva on Sunday. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
The White House’s gamble culminated this past weekend in dramatic final hours of talks defined by last-minute hiccups, lingering differences and a surprise push by the Iranians to amend the agreement just a half-hour before it was announced, according to Western diplomats involved.
The U.S. and five other countries have reached an agreement with Iran to ease economic sanctions in return for Tehran’s halting of its nuclear program. Photo: AP
The secret negotiations created the foundation for the agreement. But they also at times upset the effort, in particular on Nov. 7 during an earlier round of talks, when the French were blindsided by the depths of the parallel talks.
The White House’s clandestine effort illustrates how any deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program was always likely to be hatched from direct U.S.-Iran talks. It also indicates how much Mr. Obama has riding on the success of the pact, having made engagement with Iran a priority since he took office.
While U.S. officials secretly engaged Iran for years, the effort significantly ramped up in early August after the U.S. delivered Mr. Obama’s first letter to Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani. What followed was a handful of meetings in secret locations between the Iranians and the White House’s top point-men: Deputy Secretary of State William Burns; Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden’s top foreign-policy adviser; and the White House’s Iran expert, Puneet Talwar.
Mr. Burns, in particular, had been discussing the outlines of a deal with Iran for months, senior U.S. officials said.
The Wall Street Journal first reported earlier this month Mr. Talwar’s secret talks with the Iranians, as well as exchanges involving National Security Adviser Susan Rice. The involvement of Messrs. Burns and Sullivan was reported Sunday by the Associated Press and the website Al Monitor.
The goal of the meetings was to develop elements of a deal and resolve differences with Iran in ways that would ultimately define the broader negotiations.
Even Secretary of State John Kerry, before he joined the administration, was involved. On Dec. 8, 2011, he quietly slipped out of Washington, missing a key Senate vote, to the Omani capital of Muscat. It was a role Mr. Obama would have him continue as secretary of state.
Mr. Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, met in New York in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, and also spoke Oct. 25 and Nov. 2, a senior administration official said.
The parallel talks at one point created havoc. Earlier this month, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, was preparing an interim accord that would grant Tehran sanctions relief in return for suspending its nuclear program, according to Western diplomats.
The U.S. arrived in Geneva with a document that fleshed out long-term sticking points, issues like Iran’s right to enrich uranium and the fate of its main nuclear facilities. The language aimed to chart a path beyond the interim accord toward a final agreement.
France was aware the U.S. was negotiating directly but hadn’t expected those separate talks to yield what one diplomat called an “American text.”
A U.S. official said Iran and the U.S. had been sending documents back and forth ahead of the Nov. 7 Geneva talks, but said there was no competing text. Baroness Ashton knew about the process, as did other P5+1 members, the U.S. official said. But France, which had long harbored skepticism toward Tehran, may not have been informed about the details, the diplomat said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius seized on what he considered a gap in the U.S. text: No requirement that Iran halt construction of a heavy-water reactor near Arak. If completed, the reactor would enable Iran to produce plutonium to fuel a potential atomic bomb. Mr. Fabius broke with his allies and appeared on French radio to warn the West of being duped by a “fool’s game.”
Those talks ended without a deal, pushing negotiators into another round that began Nov. 20. The extension gave an opening to critics, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, raising the stakes for the White House.
Mr. Burns was in Geneva during the latest talks but not as a member of the American delegation. He conducted his meetings with Iranian diplomats from an undisclosed location nearby, although he also secretly joined the talks at Geneva’s Intercontinental Hotel.
The U.S. official said confidence was at its lowest Thursday evening. There was no major curve ball from Tehran, but its team had new demands on how the text should be phrased. “That first night we ended early,” the official said. “The sense was people needed to think long and hard about whether they were ready to do this.”
The decision of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to fly to Geneva uninvited could have upset the talks. Baroness Ashton’s spokesman pointedly noted he hadn’t yet been invited. But once he got to Geneva, he kept a low profile, officials said.
The disagreements were similar to those that had bedeviled talks all through the process: how to handle Iran’s Arak plutonium reactor, whether Iran could claim a right to enrichment, and the extent of sanctions relief.
A senior U.S. official said even at midnight Saturday Geneva time, a deal seemed far from certain.
Around 2:30 a.m. a senior member of the Iranian delegation called the EU team saying Tehran needed one more amendment to the text, officials said. The six foreign ministers decided the time for amendments had passed and sent back the message that the text wouldn’t change. The move didn’t prove a deal-breaker, and by 3 a.m. the sides were ready to announce a deal.
Mr. Kerry spoke with Mr. Obama Saturday afternoon to walk the president through the lingering issues. Late into Saturday evening U.S. time, as American and Iranian officials went back and forth on language of the deal, Mr. Obama personally signed off on the final draft.
—Stacy Meichtry contributed to this article.