President Barack Obama has made clear his intention to open some kind of dialogue with Iran if the circumstances are right. That stance has sparked intense speculation about if and when such direct contacts would be opened. But informal contacts have already been laying the foundation for that to happen.
Defense and security advisors from the Obama presidential campaign participated in unofficial meetings with Iranian officials over the past year, according to one of the organizers.
The meetings were held under the auspices of the Pugwash Conferences, a nongovernmental group devoted to promoting international understanding. The group won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for its work advocating nuclear non-proliferation.
Speaking to VOA, Jeffrey Boutwell, the executive director of Pugwash, said there were four such meetings last year, three in the Netherlands and a final one in Vienna. Boutwell said there was no official sanction sought or received from the U.S. government for the meetings. But he feels they did lay the groundwork for any future official dialogue between Tehran and Washington under the Obama administration.
"It's up to the Obama administration to make those decisions, but we think we served a useful purpose last year in clarifying positions on the two sides so that if direct talks proceed between Obama administration officials and the Iranian government they'll have a better understanding of each side's position," he said.
Boutwell confirmed that former defense secretary William Perry, who was a national security advisor to the Obama campaign, participated in the discussions. He would not reveal other participants. But he said the American participants were people with some access to the corridors of power.
"So, if we happened to have some people -- let's just say, good access into the Obama campaign, and people with access to Bush Administration officials as well, people who were well thought of who would be listened to by people both in the (Bush) administration and also in the Obama campaign," he said.
When asked about the meetings, a State Department spokesman said that these sorts of contacts, if they occurred, should not be confused with government-to government discussions.
Boutwell says the Pugwash did not seek any official approval for its conferences. "These were people meeting in their personal capacities but people who have access in their respective capitals to important people in the governments. So in terms of official approval or sanction, no, certainly not from the U.S. government. We never sought it nor would we seek it. We just invite people in their personal capacities to attend. And if they are able to attend, well, then you can draw your own conclusions as to whether or not a government is tacitly going along with it."
In fact, Iranian and U.S. officials have met in several different circumstances to discuss specific issues, such as stability in Iraq.
Gary Sick, an Iran scholar at Columbia University, adds that meetings such as the Pugwash conferences are not unusual. He has participated in several such meetings. But, he adds, they are sensitive, particularly on the Iranian side.
"It is not conspiratorial and it is not covert. The two governments are fully aware that these things are going on. But it can be very embarrassing for the individuals involved if somebody quotes them out of context publicly and says that this is what they were saying to so-and-so. And so the Iranians, especially in the last year, have become extremely cautious about participating in these things."
Other so-called Track Two - that is, unofficial - Iranian-American meetings have been reported elsewhere, including several over the past five years between former American diplomats and Iranian academics and policy advisors.