In a secret encounter arranged by the longtime monarch, Sultan
It was the first in a series of at least five clandestine meetings this year between U.S. and Iranian officials in Oman and elsewhere after more than three decades of bitter estrangement. They paved the way for the landmark agreement announced early Sunday in Geneva designed to freeze Iran's
The hidden effort was a gamble by Obama, who promised when he took office in 2009 to engage Iran in the hope of deterring it from developing a nuclear weapon. His early outreach was spurned by the government of arch-conservative President
Although the secret talks began in Ahmadinejad's final months as president, they accelerated after
The back-channel talks were so delicate that Obama did not inform key U.S. allies — not other members of the six-nation diplomatic bloc negotiating with Iran, and not Israel — until late September, after Rouhani gave what many viewed as conciliatory remarks at the
"When President Rouhani was elected and indicated a new direction, we decided to take that seriously and to test it," said a senior administration official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity. Another U.S. official later provided more details about the secret diplomacy, which was first reported by the Associated Press shortly after the Iran deal was announced.
The efforts to conceal the talks continued during the formal nuclear negotiations in Geneva this month when the two key U.S. officials involved, Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President
To hide them from reporters, the
The official described the early meetings as "crucial" to hammering out the framework of the interim deal announced Sunday, and said they reflected Obama's desire to seek a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear standoff with Iran.
When Obama was first elected president, Qaboos, a shrewd leader who enjoys good relations with both Washington and Tehran, had volunteered to serve as the go-between, as long as his role was protected.
Back in 2009, according to a secret State Department cable published by the anti-secrecy website
Two years later, Qaboos' intervention helped secure the release of three Americans who were detained in Iran after crossing the border from Iraq. That gave Obama administration officials hope that the sultan's back channel could bear fruit.
In 2011, U.S. officials sat down with an Iranian team in Muscat with the modest aim of exploring whether bilateral talks were even possible.
By early this year, sanctions on Iran's oil industry, financial sector and banking were causing increasing pain. For the first time, the leaders in Tehran, including supreme leader
The first meeting in March quickly led to others. In May, Secretary of State
After Rouhani took office in August, Obama sent a letter of congratulations and Rouhani replied. The Iranian leader said of the exchange on NBC News, "It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future."
That month, Qaboos flew to Tehran for a visit that Iranian newspapers said was aimed at facilitating talks between U.S. and Iranian officials — talks that were, by then, secretly well underway.
Burns, Sullivan and a small team of U.S. technical experts had held two more meetings with Iranian officials shortly after Rouhani's inauguration, and held another two meetings in October, where the outlines of the deal began to take shape.
Administration officials would not disclose the locations of the meetings or the identities of the Iranians involved except to say that they were veteran officials who spoke fluent English.
While the secret talks were going on, Obama and Rouhani took public steps that signaled a potential thaw in relations.
At the U.N. General Assembly in September, Burns and Sullivan came close to arranging a highly symbolic face-to-face encounter between the two leaders, but the Iranians withdrew at the last minute.
Days later, Obama spoke to Rouhani for 15 minutes by telephone in the first direct contact in more than three decades between an American president and his Iranian counterpart.
After that conversation, officials said, Obama began to disclose the outreach effort to other five nations in the group negotiating with Iran — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
Obama informed Israeli Prime Minister