The United States and Iran agreed for the first time to launch one-on-one negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, the New York Times reported late on Saturday night.
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This could mark a final diplomatic effort to avert military action against Iran, the U.S. newspaper noted.
Iran wants to start the talks only after the United States chooses its next president in early November, a senior Obama official reportedly told the paper. This is because Tehran wants to know who it will be negotiating with, the official said.
The White House, however, was quick to deny the report. In a statement, National Security Council Spokesman Tommy Vietor said it was "not true" that the two sides had agreed to direct talks.
"It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections. We continue to work with the P-5 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally," the statement said.
According to the New York Times report, the agreement was reached following intense, secret negotiations that started shortly after Barack Obama entered the White House four years ago.
Israel had not been informed of the talks, ambassador to Washington Michael Oren told the Times. Israeli officials initially had said that they were aware of and open to the talks, the paper reported.
"We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks," Oren told the Times, "Rather that sanctions and all other possible pressures on Iran must be increased."
Israel has been pushing international powers to take action against Iran over its uranium enrichment activity, which it alleges is for military purposes. Iran contends that the uranium is purely for civilian use.
With two weeks to go before Americans head to the polls, the news of pending talks comes at a crucial moment. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has accused Obama of weakness vis-a-vis the Iranians, and has said he failed to fully back Israel.
The news of talks may boost Obama's case that he is nearing a breakthrough on Iran. However, it could also be a ploy by Iran in order to buy more time for its nuclear program, the Times noted. Iran has made similar moves in the past. A small number of diplomats who work on issues related to Iran reportedly know about the agreement, the Times said.
This is far from a done deal. American officials said they were unsure whether the agreement had the backing of Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Times reported. Rather, the agreement was reached with senior Iranian leaders who report to Khamenei, they reportedly told the Times.
Iran wants the talks to include a wide range of conflict points with the United States, including Syria and Bahrain, the Times reported. However, some American officials want to see the talks limited to Iran's nuclear program, it added.