A New York Times report Saturday suggesting that the U.S. and Iran have secretly agreed to hold one-on-one nuclear negotiations has elicited a White House denial and a host of Israeli responses.
Vice Prime Minister Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon confirmed that the U.S. was in fact in contact with Iran, but not directly. In an interview with Israel Radio, Ya'alon said, "There have been attempts to take advantage of the fact that U.S. representatives meet with Iranian officials during world power gatherings. But [Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is opposed to such direct contact."
"The latest report has been denied, and I believe the White House's denial. It is no secret that there are contacts between the U.S. and Iran through indirect channels, but Iran has consistently refused [bilateral talks] until now, and I don't know of any change in that position, and certainly not of any agreements," Ya'alon continued.
"There have been efforts all along to take advantage of U.S. meetings with Iranians at world power gatherings to create a direct channel, but Khamenei is opposed, so the report may have been premature. It hasn't happened yet.
"We would be very happy if Iran were to abandon its nuclear program. Israel is not opposed, as long as Iran halts its nuclear program as a result of direct talks between them and the U.S. Israel would welcome it."
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Sunday that while he hoped the New York Times report was not true, he believed potential talks would only serve as an Iranian ploy to further deceive the West.
Lieberman was among the first Israeli politicians to respond to the report, telling Army Radio Sunday that "no one in Israel knew. The only thing we noticed was something on the Russian Foreign Ministry website along the same lines as the New York Times report, suggesting possible talks immediately after the elections."
"We hope that this [report] is unsubstantiated," Lieberman said. "I want to believe the denial issued by the White House; they have a lot of experience. The negotiations with Iran did not begin yesterday, and not the day before. There are 10 years of cumulative experience and the Iranians have deceived the Security Council and the P5+1 time and time again."
He said he felt that it was personal motives prompting the European Union to impose sanctions on Iran, not a desire to help Israel.
"The countries waging a battle against Iran are not doing it for Israel. They are doing it because their soldiers are being killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are influenced by Iran, and because Tehran is a supporter of the current genocide in Syria," Lieberman said.
Israel Radio reported that the Israeli response to the news had shifted overnight: At first Israeli officials voiced hesitant support for bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks, with one official saying, "Israel doesn't care how the Iranian nuclear program is stopped, as long as it is stopped."
But later, the official response shifted to marked concern that this was merely another Iranian attempt to buy time, in the face of growing economic hardships brought on by global sanctions. Officials are convinced that Tehran is determined to develop nuclear weapons and therefore any additional negotiations would be futile. But Jerusalem sources also voiced hope that the diplomatic efforts would bear fruit and obviate the need for a military attack.
Homefront Defense Minister Avi Dichter also addressed the report, telling Israel Radio on Sunday, "Any type of dialogue is the preferred course of action, and I presume the prime minister agrees. The problem is that we can't go by a report in The New York Times. We need an official confirmation."
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said, "What I know is that Israel has won a significant diplomatic victory in imposing the nearly strangling sanctions on the Iranian economy, which is on the verge of collapse. I don't envy the Iranian finance minister; the situation there is worse than in Europe. The U.S. is a sovereign country and it can decide its policy on its own. But both [U.S. President Barack] Obama and [Republican presidential challenger Mitt] Romney clearly understand that the U.S. cannot contain a nuclear Iran."
Meanwhile Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi also denied the New York Times report, telling reporters in Dubai that "we are holding no discussions or negotiations with the U.S." but adding that talks on the issue with the West were ongoing.
On Saturday, the White House denied the New York Times report, saying it remained committed to working with major powers to resolve the standoff.
Quoting unnamed Obama administration officials, the newspaper said earlier on Saturday that the two sides had agreed to bilateral talks after secret exchanges between U.S. and Iranian officials. Iran had insisted the talks not begin until after the Nov. 6 U.S. elections because it wanted to know with which U.S. president it would be negotiating, the newspaper said. An unnamed senior administration official was also quoted as saying that the U.S. had reached the agreement for bilateral talks with senior Iranian officials who report to Khamenei.
The White House moved quickly to deny the report, which came two days before Obama was due to face Romney in a debate focused on foreign policy.
"It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement. "We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally."
The White House said the Obama administration was intent on its current "twin-track" course, which involves both diplomatic engagement and a tightening network of international sanctions to pressure Iran.
"The president has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that," Vietor's statement said. "It has always been our goal for sanctions to pressure Iran to come in line with its obligations. The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure."
Meanwhile, NBC reported that according to a senior administration official, there had been back-channel talks between the U.S. and Iran about meeting bilaterally on the Iranians’ nuclear program, but no agreement on a meeting had been reached.
The U.S. has been working with the P5+1 (U.N. Security Council permanent members Britain, China, France, Russia, and the U.S., plus Germany) to pressure Iran to curb its controversial nuclear program.
The U.S. and other Western powers have charged that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, but Tehran insists the program is for peaceful purposes.
Israel has said it would use military force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power but has had differences with Washington over when Tehran would actually cross the "red line" to nuclear capability.
Romney has attacked Obama for failing to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, part of a broader effort to paint the incumbent president as a weak steward of U.S. power who has left the country more vulnerable.
The P5+1 has held a series of inconclusive meetings with Iranian officials over the past year. While Western officials say there is still time to negotiate, they also have been ratcheting up sanctions that are contributing to mounting economic problems in Iran.