US, Iran agree to one-on-one nuclear negotiations

Washington: In what could be a major breakthrough, the US and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Islamic republic's nuclear programme, an influential American daily has claimed.

The talks could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iranian nuclear installations and could also help President Barack Obama make the case that he is nearing a breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world's major powers to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

"Iranian officials have insisted that the talks wait until after the presidential election," The New York Times quoted a senior Obama administration official as saying.

The Iranians told their US counterparts that they want to know with whom they would be negotiating, the paper said.

"News of the agreement – a result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama's term – comes at a critical moment in the presidential contest, just two weeks before Election Day and the weekend before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy," it said.

The White House, however, denied that a final agreement had been reached. "It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said, refuting NYT news report.

"We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally," Vietor said. "The President has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that."

He added, however, that the administration was open to such talks, and has "said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally."

The Western powers accuse Tehran of developing nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran deny.

"It has always been our goal for sanctions to pressure Iran to come in line with its obligations. The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure," Vietor said.

Reports of the agreement have circulated among a small group of diplomats involved with Iran, the NYT said.

"There is still a chance the initiative could fall through, even if Obama is re-elected. Iran has a history of using the promise of diplomacy to ease international pressure on it. In this case, American officials said they were uncertain whether Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had signed off on the effort. The American understandings have been reached with senior Iranian officials who report to him," the paper quoted an Obama administration official as saying.

It's not clear that Obama's opponent Mitt Romney would go through with the negotiation should he win election. Romney has repeatedly criticized the president as showing weakness on Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat, the paper said.