[The Telegraph, U.K.]



Le Temps, Switzerland

America and Iran: Secret Talks in Geneva 'Revealed'


"It is essential that Iranians and Westerners talk because we may have perceptions of one another that are sometimes far removed from reality. The worst case is when we dehumanize each other … When there are no cameras, the fear of speaking freely disappears. Participants no longer feel compelled to play games."


-- A participant in secret Iran-U.S. 'Track II' talks


By Stéphane Bussard


Translated By Elise Nussbaum


April 8, 2009


Switzerland - Le Temps - Original Article (French)

For the past six years, American, European and Iranian researchers have been meeting in secret. All but two of the meetings took place in Geneva. The objective: to establish informal bridges to avoid the worst. This process, called “Track II,” revealed today by 'Le Temps', was inspired by the Oslo Accords.


Will informal diplomacy allow Iranians and Americans to reconcile, 30 years after the severance of diplomatic relations between Washington and Teheran? For six years, academics from the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States, but also from Europe, Switzerland, the Arab states and even Israel, have ignored the restrictions to meet regularly in Europe. Several meetings, which included an average of thirty participants, have taken place in Geneva. The last two were discretely held in another European country. The most recent was held from March 6 to March 8.




Participants at these meetings call the process “Track II,” a term that refers to a secret, informal form of diplomacy. One professor who participates in these meetings but who wishes to maintain his anonymity out of fear of losing his job, says, “The Oslo process began at this level. It is essential that Iranians and Westerners talk because we may have perceptions of one another that are sometimes far removed from reality. The worst case is when we dehumanize each other." The professor added, "When there are no cameras, the fear of speaking freely disappears. Participants no longer feel compelled to play games.”


The informal diplomacy of Track II is not disconnected from the official policies of Washington and Teheran. It is pursued with support in high places. At the last meeting held in early March, a close friend of the Iranian government was present as well as an ambassador from another country. This dialogue seems to have had the approval of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council and its chairman, [former Iran President] Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The leaks Le Temps has reported seem to be an attempt to influence the campaign leading up to the Iranian presidential election on June 12. This transparency also seems to reveal the urgency of the situation: Teheran is on the verge of reaching the nuclear threshold.




The university professors have profiles that are related to regional issues in the Middle East and U.S.-Iran relations. Some are experts in strategy and others in international relations. Still others are nuclear experts or work for international organizations. Another participant, who also wishes to remain anonymous, says, “Certain Iranian professors swear by this continuation of this process. By participating in Track II, they are putting their lives at risk.” Apparently, some professors whose names appeared in Greek newspapers a few years ago ended up in prison.


The professor thinks that the Track II process carries another advantage. “In Iran, decisions are made by consensus. From the outside, it’s difficult to identify those who are really in power. Through our discussions between academics, we are more capable of knowing who the real decision makers are. Sometimes a person may have no official title but has privileged access to those who really do decide.”




Though during their meetings, the academics don’t directly discuss the Iranian nuclear problem, they don't ignore it, either At the March 6-8 meeting, two views became clear. Some argues that it would be better to deal with the nuclear controversy separately without associating it with other problems. Others made the case for negotiating a “global package,” as was the case with the European Union and its representative Javier Solana, who proposed a "freeze in sanctions in exchange for a freeze of Iran's uranium enrichment program." Other questions have been raised: what to do when a state like Iran is about to cross the nuclear threshold? According to our sources, Teheran now has 4,000 centrifuges and 800 kilos of lightly enriched uranium. It takes 10 kilos of highly-enriched uranium to make a bomb. Is the program becoming militarized? What would be the impact of a new president after the June 12 election?






At the March 2009 Track II meeting, the Iranians were less present than at previous meetings. The reason: they seem to be awaiting the concrete effects of the change promised by the Obama Administration. According to our sources, Washington was due to complete its review of its Iran policy by the end of March. The Americans are wondering … "Should we continue with the multilateral approach of the P5 + 1 powers (the U.S., France, United Kingdom, China, Russia and Germany), or would it be better to choose a bilateral way forward with Iran? Within the American administration, internal rivalries are slowing things down.


U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, William Burns, who was at the talks in Geneva in July 2008 (formal diplomacy, Track I) with the Iranians, finds himself competing with Richard Holbrooke and especially Dennis Ross, the veteran Middle East envoy for the Clinton Administration, who has been appointed [by Hillary Clinton] as special envoy for the Middle East. “But who's in charge?” asks one expert who recalls that in Teheran, Dennis Ross is perceived as a [pro-Israel] hardliner. “It’s as if we sent a member of the Revolutionary Guard to negotiate with Washington.”




For the time being, Track II meetings are no longer being held in Geneva. The reason? With the intense diplomatic activity that characterizes the city, discretion can no longer be assured. But it's not out of the question that as U.S.-Iran relations evolve - and with the relative success of Track II, this type of informal meeting may become more media-friendly and return to Geneva. This hypothesis would become even more probable if the Obama Administration’s policy of diplomatic openness toward Iran began to produce results.


Up to now, some 400 universities have taken part in these meetings. The context in which they take place recalls the secret negotiations that took place in Oslo concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict. The participants choose a discrete location where there are few distractions, preferably in the countryside. Small groups are formed to discuss the thorniest problems. Often, the scholars continue their discussions during walks in nature. The participants at the meetings, which generally last about three days, pass all their time together, from breakfast to dinner, in order to create a quasi-complicity more conducive to cooperative problem-solving.


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seeks an apology

from the Obama Administration for past American policy,

Jan. 28, 00:05:58. WATCH  [free registration required]




It's difficult to say now whether this process of informal diplomacy will lead to an agreement between the United States and Iran. One expert thinks that the support of Iranian authorities is somewhat limp: “The State, in Iran, is omnipresent. It's doubtful whether the authorities accord too much importance to the process. But they do like it when others talk about Iran.” Another highly-placed Iranian expert says, “It proves that we are taken seriously." 



The Track II process, however, has the merit of breaking with official channels and realpolitik, which offer only limited room to maneuver. Particularly since the United States has had no direct contact with Iran for the last 30 years, and since President George W. Bush included the Islamic Republic in the “Axis of Evil” during his State of the Union address in January, 2002. The first Track II discussions seem to have coincided with the onset of the Iraq War in March 2003, when Mohammad Khatami was still Iran's president.


Today, although the Iranian presidency has been occupied by the ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since 2005, Track II continues …



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[Posted by WORLDMEETS.US April 10, 7:49pm]