September 16, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1185

Iranian Officials Reveal That Secret Negotiations With U.S. Began In 2011 – Only After U.S. Complied With Tehran's Precondition To Recognize In Advance Iran's Nuclear Status

September 16, 2015 | By Yigal Carmon, A. Savyon, and Yossi Mansharof*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1185


American administration spokesmen have explained the nuclear agreement with Iran as both leveraging the opportunity created by the election of a pragmatic Iranian president, Hassan Rohani in June 2013, and as vital because the sanctions have not set back Iran's nuclear program, and the West has grown weary of enforcing them.[1]

However, it has emerged that the U.S. began secret negotiations even earlier, in 2011, during the presidency of the extremist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Moreover, during that time, not only had the Western countries not lost interest in maintaining the sanctions, but they had intensified them significantly after the beginning of the secret negotiations - both in March 2012, when sanctioned Iranian banks were disconnected from the SWIFT system, and in July 2012, when the European sanctions on Iranian oil sales were imposed.

Furthermore, according to recent reports in Western media from Western sources, the Obama administration had, since President Obama took office in 2008, constantly and consistently pushed for negotiations with Iran. President Obama's messages in this regard to Iran's leadership on various levels - letters, public speeches, and so on - began as early as 2009; details of these media reports and of Obama's messages will be published in a separate MEMRI report.

Additionally, it is evident from statements by top Iranian officials that the secret contacts initiated by the Obama administration with Iran did indeed begin in 2011, during the extremist Ahmadinejad's presidency - before harsh sanctions were imposed.

This paper will present the Iranian narrative, as related by senior Iranian regime officials, about the beginning of the secret contacts between the U.S. and Iran that ultimately led to the announcement of the JCPOA in July 2015:

Khamenei: Bilateral Talks Began In 2011, And Were Based On U.S. Recognition Of A Nuclear Iran

In a June 23, 2015 speech, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told about the American initiative, saying that it had begun during the Ahmadinejad presidency and had centered on U.S. recognition of a nuclear Iran: "The issue of negotiating with the Americans is connected to the term of the previous [Ahmadinejad] government, and to the dispatching of a mediator to Tehran to request talks. At that time, a dignified individual from the region [referring to Omani Sultan Qaboos] came to visit me as a mediator, and said explicitly that the American president [Obama] had asked him to come to Tehran and present the Americans' request for negotiations. The Americans told this mediator: 'We want to solve the nuclear issue and lift sanctions within six months, while recognizing Iran as a nuclear power.' I told this mediator that I did not trust the Americans or their words, but I agreed, when he persisted, to reexamine this issue, and the negotiations began."[2]

Rafsanjani: Two Meetings Were Held Prior To Iran's 2013 Presidential Election

Pragmatic camp leader Hashemi Rafsanjani stated in an August 4, 2015 speech that contacts between the Americans and Iranians date back to the Ahmadinejad era: "A few months prior to the [2013] elections in Iran, high-ranking regime officials agreed that there should be negotiations with America. Before this, an [Iranian] team had been sent to Oman in light of a message from Sultan Qaboos, and two lengthy meetings were held [there]."[3]

Salehi: "As A Senator, Kerry Had Been Appointed By Obama To Be In Charge Of Handling The Nuclear Dossier, And Then [In December 2012] He Was Appointed Secretary Of State"

Salehi In April 2014: I Jumpstarted The Talks With The U.S., During Ahmadinejad's Term, With Khamenei's Approval

In an April 19, 2014 interview, Iranian Atomic Energy Organization director Ali Akbar Salehi, who served as foreign minister under Ahmadinejad, told Iran's Al-'Alam TV:

"Regarding negotiations with America, I first went to the leader [Khamenei] to request his permission [to negotiate], and he set the condition that we would discuss only the nuclear issue. At that time, we started our work. Work on the talks with America began two and a half years ago [that is, during 2011], after obtaining the leader's approval, and later the matter was transferred to the next government [i.e. the Rohani government]. At that time, the leader ordered [us to] ask several officials in the previous [Ahmadinejad] government for their view regarding bilateral talks with the American administration on the nuclear issue. I was at the foreign ministry back then, that is, two or three years ago, and I said these things to the leader and [I also] said, 'Allow us to enter into negotiations with the Americans on the nuclear issue.' He said that they [the Americans] are not to be trusted, and provided proof of this, such as the issues of Afghanistan and Iraq, and added that they [the Americans] violate commitments and alliances, are untrustworthy, and do not have good intentions.

"I told him: 'If you permit it, we can make an attempt on the nuclear issue as well.' He said: 'No problem. Go ahead. But know that this [i.e. these talks] will be an ultimatum [for them]. We will inform the [Iranian] people that we have used every opportunity to peacefully resolve this issue with honor and wisdom, and as part of our interests, and that we will prevent them [the Americans] from playing with [Iranian] public opinion.' Setting several conditions, [Khamenei] said: 'You must obey four conditions, and one of them is that the talks will concern only the nuclear issue.' Ultimately, the matter somehow began, and arrived to [the hands of] the new [Rohani] government, which continued it."[4]

Salehi In April 2015: "Representatives Of America Said That They Officially Recognize [Iran's Right To] Enrichment.' This Was The First Step, That Opened The Door To The Negotiations"

A year after these statements to Al-Alam TV, Salehi reiterated, on April 21, 2015, to reformist circles the bilateral U.S.-Iran negotiations had come about:[5]

"When I was foreign minister [in the Ahmadinejad government], I came to Khamenei and asked him to examine a different path. At that time, the Americans had sent us their offer via Oman. Noticing the gravitas of the Americans during the [general P5+1] talks, I asked the leader to allow us to examine a second path.

"Noting America's record, he said: 'America breaks promises.' I said: 'Let me jumpstart negotiations in order to set an ultimatum [and that is this]: If we do not reach an outcome, it will be clear that it is the other side [i.e. the U.S.] that is intractable. Khamenei agreed to these talks, and set conditions. One of them was that these would not be negotiations for their own sake - that is, the Americans must not stall. Another condition was that the talks would focus only on the nuclear issue, not on bilateral ties or any other issues... Of course, the Americans insisted that these talks take place prior to their [2012 presidential] election. Following unofficial correspondence with them via Oman, the talks began late.

"Eventually, we held the first round [of talks]. At that time, [Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister] Khaji was sent to head the talks, accompanied by several desk chiefs. In this round, we reached a series of initial agreements, but the second round was postponed due to this lack of coordination [within the Ahmadinejad government]. No matter how hard we pressed, the work did not progress. Eventually, the second round took place, and this is all documented.

"History will judge the correspondence between us, and the defective morality [on the American side] in the process, for which there is documentation. In the Ahmadinejad government, I gave an interview in which I stated, after I had received permission [to do so], that we will soon witness good events. I thought we could move ahead in these talks easily, and I did not know that we would hit a roadblock. Happily, in the second round of talks, the Sultan of Oman wrote to Ahmadinejad: 'The American and Iranian representatives came to me and the representatives of America said that they officially recognize [Iran's right to] enrichment.' This was the first step, that opened the door to the negotiations.

"After that, the desired framework for continuing the negotiations was clarified. These events led to us reaching a third round of talks, held just prior to the [June 2013] Iranian presidential elections. We had wasted so much time and energy on each previous round of talks, which is why the negotiations took so long, but the result was that the Americans themselves undertook to notify the P5+1 that an agreement with us had been reached, since we ultimately must arrive at an outcome by means of that group [i.e. the P5+1].

"On the eve of the third round of negotiations, Khamenei wished to transfer responsibility for the negotiations to the next [i.e. Rohani] government. Ultimately, when the Rohani government began to operate, I came to His Honor [likely Rohani] and presented a report on the ongoing work. He saw the process of implementation as worthy of attention. The Rohani government established a political committee comprising [Foreign Minister Javad] Zarif and several presidential advisors. I asked [Deputy Foreign Minister] Khaji [who had conducted the secret negotiations] and [Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas] Araghchi [and senior negotiator] to update the committee [on the negotiations]. To my delight, the Rohani government opened the door [to negotiations], because of [their] comprehensive sympathy and cooperation. The president [Rohani], foreign minister [Zarif], and Supreme National Security Council secretary [Ali Shamkhani] were all in agreement, and this advanced matters rapidly...

"Without a doubt, it was Khamenei personally who opened the door to this process. I just played the role of go-between."[6]

Salehi In Extensive August 2015 Interview: Kerry, As Head Of The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sent Tehran A Letter Recognizing Iran's Right To Enrich Uranium

In a far-ranging interview published in the daily Iran on August 4, 2015, Salehi revealed further details (for the rest of the interview, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6134, Iranian VP And Atomic Chief Salehi Reveals Details From Secret Iran-U.S. Nuclear Talks: Khamenei Made Direct Talks Conditional Upon Achieving Immediate Results; U.S. Conveyed Its Recognition Of Iran's Enrichment Rights To Omani Sultan, Who Relayed The Message To Then-President Ahmadinejad, August 17, 2015):

"...All the demands in the letter were related to the nuclear challenge. These were issues we have always come against, such as closing the nuclear dossier [in the Security Council], official recognition of [Iran's] right to enrich [uranium], and resolving the issue of Iran's actions under the PMD [Possible Military Dimensions]. After receiving the letter, the Americans said: 'We are certainly willing and able to easily solve the issues Iran has brought up.'


"Q: With whom was the American side in contact?

"A: They were in contact with Omani officials, including the relevant functionary in the Omani regime. He was a friend of the U.S. secretary of state [John Kerry]. At that time, Kerry was not secretary of state, but head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In any case, after I received an affirmative answer from the Americans, I deduced that the ground was prepared for further steps in this direction. That is why I asked the Omanis to send an official letter to Iran so I could present it to Iranian officials. I assessed that this was a good opportunity and that we could derive benefit from it.


"Q: Up to this point, you hadn't consulted with anyone? You were acting solely on your own authority?

"A: Yes. I sent a message to Omani officials saying, 'Write your letter in an official manner so that our officials will know that it is serious.' That was because up to that point, all discussions had been strictly oral. I told our Omani friends: 'Present these demands officially.' They did so, and I presented the letter to [Iranian] regime officials and went to the leader [Khamenei] to explain the process in detail.


"Q: Did you also give the letter to the president [Ahmadinejad]?

"A: I informed regime officials that such a letter had been received. After the letter [was received], I went to the leader and told him, 'It is unlikely that talks between Iran and the P5+1 will achieve the results we desire. If you permit it, I can promote another path [meaning a secret bilateral channel with the U.S.].' I later informed him that Oman was officially willing to act as official mediator...


Q: Did the Supreme National Security Council play a part in these [secret] talks?

"A: No. I was authorized to advance these talks but I had to coordinate with the other bodies, which is exactly what caused problems. Eventually, after receiving the leader's approval, eight months after the necessary coordination was achieved with the head of the Supreme National Security Council [Saeed Jalili], the first meeting with the Americans was held. We sent a team to Oman that included the deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs, Mr. [Ali Asghar] Khaji, as well as several CEOs. The Americans were surprised in the first meeting and said, 'We cannot believe this is happening. We thought Oman was joking. We aren't even prepared for these talks with you.'


"Q: What was the level of the team that the Americans dispatched?

"A: It included Assistant Secretary of State William Burns. They said: 'We only came to see if Iran was truly willing to negotiate.' Our representative gave them the required response and eventually there were talks on this issue. The initial result was achieved and the ground was prepared for further coordination.


"Q: How were the Americans convinced that the Iranian diplomats who were dispatched had the necessary authority?

"A: [Until] that phase, Iran and America had not been allowed to sit opposite each other at the negotiating table. The fact that Iran had sent a deputy foreign minister to the talks indicated its seriousness. The Americans also noticed how seriously [Iran was taking] the issue. At that meeting, Khaji pressed the Americans to set up a roadmap for the negotiations, and eventually the talks of a roadmap were postponed to the second meeting. At the second meeting, Khaji warned the Americans: 'We did not come here for lengthy negotiations. If you are serious, you must officially recognize enrichment, otherwise we cannot enter into bilateral talks. But if you officially recognize enrichment, then we too are serious and willing to meet your concerns on the nuclear matter as part of international regulations.'


"Q: What [Iranian] body backed this demand?

"A: The Foreign Ministry, since the leader gave me guidelines [as foreign minister] and stressed, 'First you must promote important demands such as official recognition of enrichment rights.' We determined that this issue would be a criterion [for determining whether the talks would continue]. We told ourselves that if they postponed recognition of enrichment to the final stage [of the talks], they would turn out to be unserious and these talks would be fruitless...


Q: You have said that the negotiations started during Obama's first term. Did you consider the possibility that Obama's rival would be elected president and would reject Obama's reassessment of Iran, and that the White House would continue the same inflexible hostility?

"A: No, on the contrary, [although] at that time the race between Obama and Romney was very close, [and] in some polls Romney was even ahead of Obama. [But] the Americans intended to push for good terms in the negotiations with all possible speed. In fact, there was a good atmosphere for talks...

"Of course, at that time we were [still] exchanging various information with the Americans via the [Omani] mediation, and this is documented at the Foreign Ministry. We did not do it in the form of official letters, but rather unofficially and not on paper. The Omani mediator later came to Iran, held talks with us, and then later spoke to the Americans and told them our positions, so that the ties were not severed. But there was no possibility for direct talks.

"Thus, a real opportunity was squandered because, at the time, the Americans were genuinely prepared to make real concessions to Iran. Perhaps it was God's will that the process progressed like that and the results were [eventually]in our favor. In any case, several months passed and Obama was reelected in America [in November 2012]. I thought that, unlike the first time, we must not waste time in coordinating [within regime bodies], so with the leader's backing and according to my personal decision, I dispatched our representatives to negotiate with the Americans in Oman...

"I dispatched Khaji to the second meeting in Oman (around March 2013) and it was a positive meeting. Both sides stayed in Oman for two or three days and the result was that the Omani ruler sent a letter to Ahmadinejad saying that the American representative had announced official recognition of Iran's enrichment rights. Sultan Qaboos sent the same letter to the American president...

"We had received [this] letter from Sultan Qaboos that stated the Americans had committed to recognizing Iran's enrichment rights. We [then ] prepared ourselves for the third meeting with the Americans in order to set up the roadmap and detail the mutual commitments. All this happened while Iran was nearing the presidential elections [in June 2013]...


"Q: What was the Americans' position in the first meetings between Iran and the P5+1 held during the Rohani government [era]?

"A: After the Rohani government began to operate - along with the second term of President Obama - the new negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 were started. By then, Kerry was no longer an American senator but had been appointed secretary of state. As a senator, Kerry had been appointed by Obama to be in charge of handling the nuclear dossier, and then [in December 2012] he was appointed secretary of state. 

"Before that, the Omani mediator, who had close relations with Kerry, told us that Kerry would soon be appointed [U.S.] secretary of state. During the period when the secret negotiations with the Americans were underway in Oman, there was a situation in which it was easier to obtain concessions from the Americans. After the Rohani government and the American administration [of Obama's second term] took power, and Kerry become secretary of state, the Americans spoke from a more assertive position. They no longer showed the same degree of eagerness to advance the negotiations. Their position became harder, and the threshold of their demands rose. At the same time, on the Iranian side, the situation [also] changed, and a most professional negotiating team took responsibility for negotiating with the P5+1." Talks Began During Ahmadinejad Presidency; America Sent Iran A Letter

On April 20, 2014, the pro-ideological camp website, which is affiliated with the Iranian nuclear negotiating team from the Ahmadinejad era, published a report on the bilateral U.S.-Iran negotiations during the Ahmadinejad era. The report was subsequently removed from the site, but was republished the same day by the website reported: "Two additional conditions, of the four [set by Khamenei], were that the foreign minister himself [Salehi] would not attend the talks, and that the negotiations would have results that are concrete and early. The policy for these talks was set by a committee of three regime officials, but Ahmadinejad himself played no significant role in it. The main strategy of the negotiations was [to set] an ultimatum for America and to show its dishonesty and unreliability. By the time of the 2013 [Iranian] presidential elections, three rounds of talks had taken place in Oman, and the Americans had officially acknowledged Iran's [right] to enrich [uranium]. However, after the new [Rohani] government came to power, the [Americans] perceived [this government's] haste and its motivation to reconcile [with the U.S.], and [therefore] they backtracked and, in the Geneva agreement, denied this right.

"America informed Iran, in a written letter, about the issue of accepting [Iran's right] of enrichment. In those negotiations, the modalities were nearly finalized, and a finish line was set that differed greatly from the one agreed on in [the] Geneva [Plan of Action, November 2013].

"At that time, the main responsibility for the negotiations was in the hands of one of the [Iranian] foreign minister's skilled deputies. The Rohani government did not appreciate the technical achievements of the previous [Ahmadinejad] government, and traded them for meager [returns]; it also did not appreciate the cumulative [accomplishments] of the [secret] negotiations, in the New York negotiations [on the margins of the 2013 UN General Assembly], and in the Geneva agreement, [the Rohani government] operated in a way that led to an outcome that was very different than what the Americans had agreed to just a few months earlier, and that is not in line with Iran's interests. Joe Biden's [national security] advisor Jack Sullivan and Undersecretary of State Bill Barnes participated in these [secret] talks."[7]

Majlis Speaker's Advisor: John Kerry Sent Iran A Letter, Via Oman, Recognizing Iran's Right To Enrich Uranium

In a July 7, 2015 interview with Tasnim, Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani's advisor Hussein Sheikh Al-Islam also discussed the contacts and meetings that had preceded the start of the U.S.-Iran negotiations, and added that Kerry had sent Tehran a letter recognizing Iran's right to enrich uranium: "We came to negotiate [with the U.S.] after Kerry wrote a letter and sent it to us via Oman, stating that America officially recognizes Iran's rights regarding the [nuclear fuel] enrichment cycle. Then, there were two meetings between the deputy foreign ministers in Oman, and after those, Obama sent Sultan Qaboos with Kerry's letter to Khamenei. Khamenei told him: 'I don't trust them.' Sultan Qaboos said: 'Trust them once more.' It was on this basis that the negotiations began, and not on the basis of sanctions, as they [the Americans] claim in their propaganda..."[8]


* A. Savyon is director of the MEMRI Iran Media Project; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI; Y. Mansharof is a MEMRI Research Fellow.


[1] According to administration officials, primarily President Obama himself, the U.S. only began secret talks with Iran after the election of Hassan Rohani, from the pragmatic camp, as Iran's president. See President Obama's speech at American University, August 5, 2015.

[2], June 23, 2015. Ahmad Khorshidi, a relative of Ahmadinejad's, told the website Entekhab in 2014 that negotiations between Tehran and Washington did not start during President Rohani's term. He said that during the Ahmadinejad era, there were three rounds of talks between the sides, which were also attended by then-foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi., June 11, 2014.

[3] ISNA (Iran), August 4, 2015.

[4] Al-'Alam (Iran), April 19, 2014.

[5] Salehi also repeated this in an interview with Iranian TV in April 2015, and said that during his term as foreign minister in 2011-2012, he had suggested to Khamenei to start negotiations with the Americans. According to him, there were two rounds of talks in Oman that led to Sultan Qaboos dispatching a letter to Ahmadinejad stating that the Americans officially recognize Iran's right to uranium enrichment., April 26, 2015.

[6], April 21, 2015.

[7], April 20, 2014. The report was also published on the same day by

[8] Tasnim (Iran), July 7, 2015.

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