Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Iran and the United States have been engaged in secret "back channel" discussions for the past five years on Iran's nuclear programme and the broader relationship between the two sworn enemies, The Independent can reveal.

One of the participants, former senior US diplomat Thomas Pickering, explained that a group of former American diplomats and experts had been meeting with Iranian academics and policy advisers "in a lot of different places, although not in the US or Iran".

"Some of the Iranians were connected to official institutions inside Iran," he said in a telephone interview from Washington. The group was organised by the UN Association of the USA, a pro-UN organisation. Its work was facilitated by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a government-funded think-tank chaired by the former chief UN weapons inspector for Iraq, Rolf Ekeus.

While the nuclear issue was "prominent", Mr Pickering said, "we discussed what's going on domestically in both countries and wide-ranging issues" affecting the US-Iran relationship. Although none of the group members was from the US or Iranian governments, he said that "each side kept their officials informed". The Bush administration "did not discourage us," he added.