U.S. now negotiating indirectly with Iran

The United States has quietly increased its back-channel diplomatic contacts with Iran, a sign that those who favor engagement have strengthened their hand in the administration, U.S. officials say.

Using Switzerland as an intermediary, American and Iranian officials have exchanged diplomatic messages on a variety of nuts-and-bolts subjects, including the fate of an American citizen missing in Iran, the future of five Iranian operatives whom American forces seized in Iraq, and old financial and property disputes.

The contacts amount to a shift for the White House, which rebuffed an Iranian offer of wide-ranging talks on Iran’s nuclear program, Middle East peace, and direct relations after the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The White House largely shut down the Swiss channel, which both countries use in the absence of formal diplomatic relations.

“There’s no doubt there’s more willingness to talk now than there was a few years ago,” one State Department official said.

U.S. officials, who discussed the sensitive issue only on the condition of anonymity, cautioned that the contacts did not amount to a secret dialogue over the biggest American-Iranian dispute: Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, which U.S. officials say is intended to develop a nuclear weapon.

And it was unclear whether the change in the American approach was a long-term shift or a tactic to persuade Iran to attend a regional meeting next week about Iraq’s future.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is to travel to the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik for a meeting May 3 and 4 of Iraq’s neighbors, and she has urged Iran to send an envoy. It would be a “missed opportunity” for Iran if it did not show up, she told the Financial Times this week.

Iran has threatened to boycott the session unless the United States releases the five Iranians seized in January in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. The U.S. military said the five were members of Iran’s paramilitary Quds force who were arming Iraqi factions to fight one another. Iran said that the five men were diplomats.

While some State Department officials favor releasing the Iranians, the White House has decided not to do so, at least for now.