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.
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.”
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  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].”
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.”
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:
“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.”
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.’
Read more at MEMRI.