POLITICS
11/08/2014 07:43 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

Iran Supreme Leader Sending Top Aide To Nuclear Talks: Report

WASHINGTON -- The prospects of striking a deal with Iran over its nuclear program appeared to brighten Saturday, with reports that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may be sending a top foreign policy adviser to the latest round of talks.

The adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, may join talks in Oman between Secretary of State John Kerry, top European Union negotiator Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the Middle East news site Al-Monitor reported Saturday afternoon, citing sources who asked to remain anonymous.

U.S. and Iranian officials did not respond to requests to confirm whether Velayati will participate in the talks, Al-Monitor said. A conservative Iranian media outlet denied Al-Monitor's report.

The talks in Oman are set to begin on Nov. 9.

If confirmed, Velayati's presence would show that Khamenei, a hard-liner who is generally seen as a hurdle to a broader Iranian rapprochement with the West, believes a settlement is within reach.

Analysts said on Twitter that the news suggested that diplomacy with Iran was working.

The talks in Oman come shortly before the Nov. 24 deadline for a deal with Iran on its nuclear program. The P5+1 -- a negotiating group that includes the U.S., Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany -- is seeking an agreement that would be more lasting and provide broader certainty that Iran's program is not for military purposes than the temporary deal reached in November 2013. That interim agreement eased some economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for commitments on transparency and rolling back uranium enrichment.

The talks are critical for the Obama administration, which has heavily invested in reaching a settlement with Iran.

President Barack Obama came under fire from critics this week after The Wall Street Journal revealed that he had sent a personal letter about the talks to the supreme leader in October, in which the president said the U.S. and Iran might cooperate in the fight against the Islamic State militant group if the two sides were able to accomplish a nuclear deal. The New York Times reported Friday that the letter emphasized the common interests shared by the U.S. and Iran.

But observers said the letter revealed that Obama misunderstands the way the Iranian government views the talks: It likely does not see U.S help against the Islamic State as critical, and could instead be using Western concerns over the group to obtain broader concessions on uranium enrichment.

The reports of Obama's letter are likely to have unsettled regional allies ranging from Israel to the U.S.'s Arab partners in the fight against the Islamic State -- none of whom, The Wall Street Journal said, had been informed about Obama's communication with Khamenei.

Republican leaders in Congress blasted the letter as well. Earlier this year, members of Congress from both parties also criticized the president over reports that his administration will, if a deal is reached, use executive authority to loosen sanctions on Iran without congressional consent.

Iran's deputy foreign minister said Saturday that both sides in the talks are committed to reaching a deal within weeks and that Iran sees a diplomatic settlement as the only way to resolve the crisis over its nuclear program.

This week also brought news that could complicate a final deal: The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency revealed that, although Iran has complied with promises to limit uranium enrichment, which are key to the current talks, it has not been cooperating fully with efforts to investigate the country's potential covert weapons production capacity. Any new deal would likely require broader inspections of Iran's program.

Representatives from other countries involved in the negotiations will join Kerry, Ashton and Zarif on Nov 11. The next round of talks, which is likely to be the last, will begin in Vienna on Nov. 18.

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