The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot is reporting that the Obama administration has been conducting one-on-one talks with its Iranian counterparts. Negotiations, according to the report, have been held in Bahrain and have been led by Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett.
The story is curious on a number of levels. It seems unlikely that if such talks existed they would take place in Bahrain. The Sunni government of the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom has long accused the Islamic Republic of Iran of trying to incite the country’s Shia majority. The regime’s anxiety doubled with the onset of the Arab uprisings, which brought large, and often violent, protests, to the streets of Manama and the regime responded with brutal repressive measures. While urging Bahrain to open its political system, the Obama administration has stood by its Gulf ally, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
News that the Bahraini regime is hosting talks between the United States and an international power that it has identified as its number one enemy actively seeking to overthrow the ruling order would play strangely throughout the country. Salafis and hardline Sunnis might accuse the government of appeasement, while Bahrain’s Shia might well wonder if the state’s public face regarding Iran was merely used to rationalize the continued oppression of the country’s largest community. With much of the world available to host private meetings between Washington and Tehran, it is hard to see why the Obama administration would put Bahrain in this awkward position.
Nonetheless, the story may well clarify other matters of interest.
Last month the New York Times reported that Iran had agreed “in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.”
In acknowledging the significance of the timing of the story—“just two weeks before Election Day and the weekend before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy”—the Times sounded like a campaign organ. The agreement to hold talks, said the paper, had “the potential to help Mr. Obama make the case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world’s major powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.” Elect Romney, however, and it’s a different situation. “It is also far from clear that Mr. Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney,” the paper opined, “would go through with the negotiation should he win election.”
Nonetheless, the White House immediately denied the Times report. "It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections," said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. "We continue to work with the P5+1 [five permanent members of the U.N. security council plus Germany] on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally."
In other words, if some in the White House saw the leak as a part of the Obama reelection campaign, others seem to have been concerned that news the U.S. intended to conduct bilateral meetings with the Iranians might confuse America’s diplomatic partners, Russia in particular, says the Yediot report. Presumably the source of the Times leak, however accurate, is not one of the White House’s professional policymakers. Perhaps it was the same person who is now allegedly leading talks with Tehran.