11/10/2014 09:31 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

U.S., Iran Explore Renewing Diplomatic Relations: Report


WASHINGTON -- The U.S. and Iran are still not certain whether they will achieve a deal on the latter's nuclear program by a deadline later this month -- but the long-sparring countries are already planning for what would happen the day after such a deal, according to a report out Monday in The Times of London.

The U.S. might open a trade office in Tehran if a deal is reached, Iranian government advisers told The Times. They said the idea has already been discussed and it will be on the agenda in secret meetings this week between representatives from the two countries in Baku, Azerbaijan. Those talks will allegedly run parallel to this week's multilateral talks in Oman about the nuclear program.

On Monday morning, the White House denied the alleged talks to The Huffington Post. "Reports that the United States is considering opening a trade office in Iran are false. There is no such consideration or discussion," Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said in an email.

U.S. officials also denied the Iranian claimsto The Times.

If the U.S. were to establish an office in Tehran, it would represent the renewal of U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relations after 35 years. Washington severed ties following the storming of the U.S. embassy there in 1979 by hardline students. Last week marked the anniversary of that crisis -- and brought the news that President Barack Obama had personally reached out to Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei about the nuclear negotiations and their shared interests in fighting the Islamic State, in the midst of what has been described as a broader thaw in the countries' relationship.

More revelations about U.S. outreach to Iran are controversial both domestically and among U.S. partners in the Middle East, most notably Israel. In its story on The Times' report, Israeli settler outlet Arutz Sheva noted that Khamenei "on Saturday once again called for the destruction of Israel," citing a Twitter outburst from the hard-line cleric.

The talks on Iran's nuclear program -- which involve Germany, France, the U.K., China and Russia, in addition to the U.S. and Iran -- are scheduled to conclude by Nov. 24, at which point a temporary agreement from last year dies.

A new deal, if reached, would build on that temporary agreement, in which Iran agreed to curb uranium enrichment and boost transparency if it received some sanctions relief. The main issues still being discussed are the levels of uranium enrichment Iran should be permitted to seek, how much transparency it will grant in the long term to the international community, and how quickly international sanctions would be lifted.

A deal may be within reach, based on one sign from over the weekend: a report in the Arab outlet Al-Monitor said Ayatollah Khamenei may be sending his top foreign policy aide to the Oman talks, in what analysts said was a sign that the cleric and supreme leader was taking the diplomatic process more seriously than ever before. Reports on the first day of the Oman session Sunday suggested that progress was being made.

But Obama noted this weekend that a deal is not yet guaranteed, and an International Atomic Energy Agency report triggered alarm bells last week by stating that while Iran had mets its commitments under the temporary agreement, it was not answering all questions about its covert attempts to build nuclear weapons.

Normalizing relations with Iran would be an exceptionally complex process for the U.S. because of the many layers of sanctions levied against Tehran.

The Obama administration has made clear that it would ease those sanctions using executive authority, thereby keeping them on the books if there was a future need to apply them and meeting the terms of a deal without having to go through a hostile Republican-controlled Congress.

Despite all the planning, analysts say that a failure to reach a deal by Nov. 24 would leave Iran and the international community more estranged than ever.

This post has been updated with a comment from the National Security Council.



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