WASHINGTON — The United States and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, according to Obama administration officials, setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.
Iranian officials have insisted that the talks wait until after the presidential election, a senior administration official said, telling their US counterparts that they want to know which American president they would be negotiating with.
News of the agreement — a result of intense, secret exchanges between US 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 a day before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy.
It has the potential to help Obama make a case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world’s major powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but it could also pose a risk if Iran is seen as using the prospect of the direct talks to buy more time.
It is also far from 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 toward Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat.
The White House 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,’’ Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said Saturday. But he added that the administration was open to such talks and has ‘‘said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”
Reports of the deal have circulated among a small group of diplomats involved with Iran.
There is still a chance the initiative could fall through, even if Obama is reelected. Iran has a history of using the promise of diplomacy to ease global pressure on it. In this case, US officials said they were uncertain whether Iran’s opaque supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had signed off. The US understandings have been reached with senior Iranian officials who report to him, an administration official said.
Even if the two sides sit down, US officials worry that Iran could prolong the negotiations to try to forestall military action and enable it to complete critical elements of its nuclear program, particularly at underground sites. Some US officials would like to limit the talks to Iran’s nuclear program, one official said, while Iran has indicated that it wants to broaden the agenda to include Syria, Bahrain, and other issues that have bedeviled relations between Washington and Tehran since the American hostage crisis in 1979.
The question of how best to deal with Iran has political ramifications for Romney as well. While he has accused Obama of weakness, he has given few specifics about what he would do differently. Moreover, the prospect of one-on-one talks could put Romney in an awkward spot, since he has opposed allowing Iran to enrich uranium to any level — a concession that experts say is likely to figure in any deal on the nuclear program.
Direct talks would also have implications for an existing series of negotiations involving a coalition of major powers, including the United States. These countries have imposed sanctions to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes but which Israel and many in the West believe is aimed at producing a weapon.
Dennis B. Ross, who oversaw Iran policy for the White House until early 2012, says one reason direct talks would make sense after the election is that current major-power negotiations are bogged down in incremental efforts, which may not achieve a solution in time to prevent a military strike.