WASHINGTON (AP) — Lawmakers are raising questions about the secret U.S. diplomacy with Iran that led to last month's nuclear breakthrough, demanding greater transparency and expressing disappointment at being left in the dark.
The Associated Press has reported that much of the Nov. 24 deal among world powers and Iran resulted from a series of secret meetings between U.S. and Iranian officials. The talks took place in the Middle East sultanate of Oman and elsewhere over eight months.
On Wednesday, Sen. Bob Corker, who recently visited Oman and discussed the diplomatic back-channel with the country's foreign minister, asked one of the American officials involved to explain the process.
Puneet Talwar, Obama's senior Mideast adviser who has been nominated for a senior State Department post, responded by saying he met with an Iranian team in Oman in the summer of 2012 and then again in March 2013. He said the talks only heated up after Iran's moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, took office in August.
"We then had an accelerating pace of discussions bilaterally with the Iranians," Talwar said at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. He said the discussions, however, were constantly linked to public, parallel negotiations involving Iran and the U.S., Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.
"It was made clear," Talwar said. "It focused exclusively on the nuclear issue, so there were no other side discussions underway. And it was merged, after the conversations gained traction," with the process involving the global powers.
The agreement last month required Iran to halt and roll back central elements of its nuclear program. That included eliminating its production and stockpiles of higher-enriched uranium, banning the addition of any new centrifuges and barring any work on a heavy water reactor that potentially could produce plutonium for nuclear bombs.
Iran insists its program is designed solely for peaceful energy generation and medical research purposes.
In exchange for its concessions, the U.S. and its partners agreed to ease economic penalties that the Obama administration estimates at about $7 billion.
The administration also promised no new penalties for the six-month duration of the deal, a source of lingering contention with skeptical lawmakers in Congress.
In weekend comments, President Barack Obama played down the significance of the secret talks.
Appearing at the Brookings Institution, he said the contacts were few and focused on seeing how serious Iran was about engaging in serious negotiations.
"They did not get highly substantive in the first several meetings but were much more exploring how much room, in fact, did they have to get something done," Obama said. As they became more technical, he added, the discussions merged with the public talks with world powers.