Iran has agreed to n-talks: US officials

INT

The United States and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, according to Obama administration officials, setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.

Iranian officials have insisted that the talks wait until after the presidential election, a senior administration official said, telling their American counterparts that they want to know with whom they would be negotiating.

News of the agreement - a result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama's term —comes at a critical moment in the presidential contest, just two weeks before Election Day and the weekend before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy.

It has the potential to help Obama make the case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world's major powers to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions, but it could pose a risk if Iran is seen as using the prospect of the direct talks to buy time.

It is also far from clear that Obama's opponent, Mitt Romney, would go through with the negotiation should he win election. Romney has repeatedly criticised the president as showing weakness on Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat.

The White House denied that a final agreement had been reached. "It's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections," Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said Saturday evening. He added, however, that the administration was open to such talks, and has "said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally."

Reports of the agreement have circulated among a small group of diplomats involved with Iran.

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