WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – The White House on Saturday denied a New York Times report that said the United States and Iran had agreed for the first time to one-on-one negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, saying it remained committed to working with major powers to resolve the standoff.
The Times, quoting unnamed Obama administration officials, said earlier on Saturday the two sides had agreed to bilateral talks after secret exchanges between U.S. and Iranian officials. Iran had insisted the talks not begin until after the Nov. 6 U.S. election because they want to know which U.S. president they would be negotiating with, the newspaper said.
The White House moved quickly to deny the report, which came two days before President Barack Obama is due to face his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, in a debate focused on foreign policy.
“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
“We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”
The United States has been working with the “P5+1” made up of the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – Britain, China, France and Russia – along with Germany to pressure Iran on its nuclear program.
The United States and other Western powers have charged that Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, but Tehran insists the program is for peaceful purposes.
Israel has said it would use military force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power but has in the past had differences with Washington over when Tehran would actually cross the “red line” to nuclear capability.
Romney has attacked Obama for failing to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, part of a broader effort to paint the incumbent president as a weak steward of U.S. power who has left the country more vulnerable.
The Times quoted an unnamed senior administration official as saying the United States had reached the agreement for bilateral talks with senior Iranian officials who report to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But the White House said the Obama administration was intent on its current “twin track” course, which involves both diplomatic engagement and a tightening network of international sanctions to pressure Iran.
“The president has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that,” Vietor’s statement said.
“It has always been our goal for sanctions to pressure Iran to come in line with its obligations. The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure.”
The P5+1 has held a series of inconclusive meetings with Iranian officials during the past year. While Western officials say there is still time to negotiate, they also have been ratcheting up sanctions that are contributing to mounting economic problems in Iran.