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Obama has begun discreet talks with Iran, Syria
WASHINGTON (AFP) — US President Barack Obama has already used experts within the last few months to hold high-level but discreet talks with both Iran and Syria, organizers of the meetings told AFP.
Officially, Obama's overtures toward both Tehran and Damascus have remained limited.
In an interview broadcast Monday, Obama said the United States 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.
However, even before winning the November 4 election, Obama unofficially used what experts call "track two" discussions to approach America's two foes in the region.
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 US 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 US; 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 (AIEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, was "among the Iranian officials who attended the Pugwash dialogues."
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 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 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 "terrorist" groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, of destabilizing Lebanon and of allowing armed men to transit its territory to fight US-led forces in Iraq.
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.