Ahead of Last Presidential Debate US and Iran Deny Reports on Bilateral Talks

On Sunday, Iran joined the U.S. in denying a report by the New York Times that the two nations agreed to enter bilateral negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program following the U.S. presidential election. If true, the plan to meet would be an unprecedented diplomatic step in the decade-long effort of global powers to halt the Iranian nuclear program.

"We don't have any discussions or negotiations with America," Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Sunday at a news conference. "The (nuclear) talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations. Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States."

The New York Times article cited unnamed senior Obama administration officials who reportedly confirmed the agreement “in principle” of one-on-one negotiations. The article claimed that the plan to meet for negotiations resulted from a long series of “intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term.”

The White House issued a statement late Saturday night denying the agreement.

"It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections," said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor in the 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."

"It has always been our goal for sanctions to pressure Iran to come in line with its obligations,” Vietor continued, “The onus is on the Iranians to do so, otherwise they will continue to face crippling sanctions and increased pressure."

The official denials by the two countries of the plan may be the result of political pressure. While Iran has expressed interest in negotiating to end the sanctions currently imposed upon the country, agreeing to meet with the U.S. alone contradicts its public stance that the U.S. is “the Great Satan.” The reported agreement may have scored Obama some political points domestically leading into Monday’s foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney, but did not sit well with all of America’s allies.

"We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks," said Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented on Sunday that he was “unaware” of any breakthrough in U.S.-Iran nuclear talks.

If the report is true and the two countries are planning to meet for negotiations following the presidential election, it would mark an unprecedented bilateral diplomatic step in the effort to halt Iranian nuclear enrichment. Currently, discussion between the two nations occurs in occasional P5+1 meetings that include the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia, plus Germany.

The Obama administration has worked with the P5+1 to pressure Iran to halt its production of enriched uranium through the passage of strict sanctions and an embargo on Iranian oil imports. While sanctions have severely impacted the Iranian economy, they have not succeeded at ending Iran’s nuclear program.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe-1 radio on Sunday that experts "have established in an absolutely indisputable way" that Iran has developed what it needs “to go toward possession of the nuclear weapon by the first half of next year."

Iran will undoubtedly be a major focus of the foreign policy debate between Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama on Monday night. The two will need to explain how long they would continue diplomacy with Iran and what other measures they might take to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear armed. 

With time running out for diplomacy to work, any steps toward negotiations with Iran would be seen by world powers as positive.

A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said that the P5+1 participants hope to "pick up discussions soon, but there is no date at the moment." 

Even if the negotiations do take place, it is unclear whether Iran would provide any serious concessions to their nuclear program. Without agreeing to desist from uranium enrichment, the country will continue to face crippling sanctions and international pressure.