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Obama begins discreet talks with Iran, Syria

UN nuclear chief welcomes US overtures to Iran

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Experts appointed by American President Barack Obama have held high-level but discreet talks with both Iran and Syria, according to reports that surfaced Sunday, in the clearest signal yet that the new administration intends to pursue a new approach and dialogue with former foes.

Officially, Obama's overtures toward both Tehran and Damascus have remained limited; nevertheless his approach towards Iran, in specific, has gained the acclaim of United Nations atomic watchdog chief Muhammad al-Baradei, who urged “direct dialogue” between Washington and Tehran.

In an interview last week, Obama said the U.S. would offer arch-foe Iran an extended hand of diplomacy if the Islamic Republic's leaders "unclenched their fist."

Meanwhile, his secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned that the Israeli-Syrian track of the Middle East peace negotiations took a back seat to the Israeli-Palestinian track, especially because of the recent war in Gaza.

Even before winning the Nov. 4 election, Obama sent out unofficial feelers to Iran and Syria through what experts call "track two" discussions, rejecting former President George W. Bush’s refusal to talk with arch-foe Iran.

High-level contacts

Nuclear non-proliferation experts had several "very, very high-level" contacts in the last few months with Iranian leaders, said Jeffrey Boutwell, executive director for the U.S. branch of the Pugwash group, an international organization of scientists which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.

Former defense secretary William Perry, who served in Obama's election campaign, participated in some of these meetings focused on a wide range of issues that separate Iran from the West: not only their nuclear program but the Middle East peace process, Persian Gulf issues," Boutwell told AFP.

The Pugwash official declined to name the other participants, except to say they had considerable clout.

"We had very, very senior figures from both the Iranian policy establishment and from the U.S.; people who have very close, good access to the top leaders in both countries," Boutwell said.

"The Cable," the blog of the specialist magazine Foreign Policy, said Iran's permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, was "among the Iranian officials who attended the Pugwash dialogues."

We had very, very senior figures from both the Iranian policy establishment and from the U.S.; people who have very close, good access to the top leaders in both countries,

Jeffrey Boutwell

Trust-building

In the meantime, U.N. atomic watchdog chief al-Baradei on Sunday welcomed recent overtures by Obama to engage Iran in talks on its nuclear program.

Al-Baradei called in an interview with the Washington Post for "a direct dialogue" between Iran and the United States, to encourage "trust-building" between the two nations.

"You're not going to have trust unless you have a direct dialogue. President Obama is saying he's ready to have a direct dialogue without preconditions, based on mutual respect. I say this is absolutely overdue," al-Baradei told the newspaper.

Washington and Tehran, which have had no diplomatic ties for nearly 30 years, differ sharply over Iran's nuclear program. Washington charges the program is a covert military one, but Tehran says it is for nuclear energy.

You're not going to have trust unless you have a direct dialogue. President Obama is saying he's ready to have a direct dialogue without preconditions, based on mutual respect. I say this is absolutely overdue,

U.N. atomic watchdog chief Muhammad al-Baradei

Damascus meetings

Meanwhile, a group of experts under the auspices of the think tank, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), announced Thursday that they met for more than two hours in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The experts included Ellen Laipson, a former White House adviser under former president Bill Clinton and a member of the Obama transition team.

Assad struck positive notes, the participants in the meeting said during a press conference at the Washington headquarters of USIP, a bipartisan think tank financed by the Congress.

"His phrasing was 70 percent of our interests are potentially shared and 30 percent are not. And he said: let's work on the 70 percent," said Bruce Jentleson, who was the disarmament advisor to former vice president Al Gore.

The Syrian president himself revealed on Monday that "dialogue started some weeks ago in a serious manner through personalities who are close to the administration and who were dispatched by the administration."

The United States accuses Syria of supporting groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, of destabilizing Lebanon and of allowing armed men to transit its territory to fight U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

His phrasing was 70 percent of our interests are potentially shared and 30 percent are not. And he said: let's work on the 70 percent,

Bruce Jentleson