Sunday’s quantum leap in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme was made possible by a series of quiet, back-channel bilateral discussions between Tehran and senior U.S. officials, it has emerged.

Media outlets such as the Associated Press and Al-Monitor quoted unnamed U.S. officials confirming that high-level, face-to-face talks over the past year had taken place out of sight of even Washington’s closest allies such as France and Israel.

U.S. President Barack Obama apparently “personally authorised” the secret talks even as tensions flared up, particularly with Israel.

According to Al-Monitor, the talks were led on the U.S. side by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who “met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts” several times over the past few months, following the exchange of letters between Mr. Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in August.

Reports noted that the talks were held unobtrusively where Iranian officials were engaged in at least five meetings by “a tight circle of people in the know”, said to include Mr. Burns, Jake Sullivan, Vice President Joe Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, and Puneet Talwar, the National Security Staff Senior Director for Iran, Iraq, and Persian Gulf Affairs.

Broader group

Despite the apparently clandestine nature of the talks, U.S. officials, speaking to media here on background after the deal was hammered out, emphasised the Obama administration’s intention that these talks tied in to the mainstream P5+1 discussions involving the broader group of western nations in negotiations with Iran.

A senior administration official said late on Saturday night that Washington had “always been crystal-clear that the P5+1 is the venue for negotiations with Iran towards an agreement on the nuclear issue... [and] any discussions we had with the Iranians on a bilateral basis were meant to reinforce and ultimately be a part of the P5+1 negotiations”.

Officials indicated the importance of the June 2013 Iranian elections in improving the prospects for talks, even as crippling sanctions continued to be in place.

U.S. officials said, “There was a sense that we had to wait and see if the Iranians under the new administration were serious about negotiations… And it became clear after the Rouhani election, that they seem serious.”

In terms of the justification for holding direct bilateral talks over and above the P5+1 platform, U.S. officials said to Al-Monitor, “Given that so much of the economic pressure on Iran comes from the U.S… it was important to establish this direct channel.” adding that other P5+1 partners also had their own independent channels of communication with Tehran.

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