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Monday, February 2, 2009

Obama consultants including Malley, Perry, made secret overtures to Iran, Syria

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has worked through unofficial consultants to launch a secret dialogue with Iran and Syria.   

Government and political sources said the dialogue was initiated soon after Obama became the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party around August 2008. The sources said the dialogue intensified after Obama's election as president in November.

"Obama has several sets of advisers, the closest of them who have so far not been brought into the administration," a political source said. "They were the first to be in contact with Iran and Syria. Since then, others have bolstered the dialogue."

Obama's leading adviser on the Middle East, the sources said, was former State Department official Robert Malley. They said Malley used his contacts in the Arab and Muslim world to send out feelers to Egypt, Iran and Syria even before Obama was elected president.

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At the same time, Obama also employed separate efforts by U.S. think tanks in sending messages to Teheran, Middle East Newsline reported. One such effort was conducted by the Pugwash group, which met Iranian officials in Europe throughout late 2008. The Pugwash effort was headed by former Defense Secretary William Perry.

[There were] "wide-ranging, atmospheric discussions: how to move beyond the 1953 coup and the 1979 revolution; how to move beyond the historical baggage that is holding back U.S.-Iranian relations," Jeffrey Boutwell, executive director of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, said.

Pugwash told The Cable blog that in 2008 Pugwash interlocutors with Iran met Obama advisers. He said the Pugwash sessions included senior Iranian officials in a discussion on Teheran's nuclear program.

The sources said Obama drew from the secret discussions with Iran when he appealed for a dialogue with Teheran. In his first television interview — with the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya satellite channel — Obama said he was launching a reconciliation effort with Iran.

"I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress," Obama said on Jan. 26. "And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

The sources said Obama has also used longtime colleagues as well as think tanks for a dialogue with Syria, Iran's leading ally. The United States Institute of Peace, financed by Congress, told a Jan. 29 news conference that a delegation met Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus in late January. The delegation included Ellen Laipson, a member of the Obama transition team.

"His [Assad] phrasing was 70 percent of our interests are potentially shared and 30 percent are not," Bruce Jentleson, disarmament adviser to former Vice President Al Gore and a delegation member, said. "And he said: let's work on the 70 percent."

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