Washington: The US on Sunday said it was ready for one-on-one negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme, even as a leading American daily claimed that the two sides have already agreed "in principle" to hold direct talks for the first time to resolve the contentious issue.
    
Quoting a senior unnamed Obama administration official, the New York Times said that "Iranian officials have insisted that the talks wait until after the presidential election."
    
The paper further claimed that Iranians have asked their US counterparts that with whom they would be negotiating.
    
The White House, however, denied the NYT report, but National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said the administration was open to such talks.
    
"It's not true that the US and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections," he said. Vietor, however, insisted that the Obama administration was open to such talks, and has "said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally."
    
The talks could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iranian nuclear installations and could also help President Barack Obama make the case that he is nearing a breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world's major powers to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
    
"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 (on November 6) and the weekend before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy," the NYT said.
    
The paper claimed the reports of the agreement have circulated among a small group of diplomats involved with Iran. The Western powers accuse Iran of developing nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran deny.

The NYT quoted officials as saying the administration has begun an internal review at the State Department, the White House and the Pentagon to determine what the United States' negotiating stance should be, and what it would put in any offer. One option under consideration is "more for more" - more restrictions on Iran's enrichment activities in return for more easing of sanctions.
    
For years, both sides have avoided one-on-one talks on the nuclear issue.
    
"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," Vietor said. The P5+1 group is composed of the permanent members of the UN Security Council - the US, Britain, China, France and Russia - plus Germany.
    
"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 added.
    
"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," he said.
    
"There is still a chance the initiative could fall through, even if Obama is re-elected. Iran has a history of using the promise of diplomacy to ease international pressure on it. In this case, American officials said they were uncertain whether Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had signed off on the effort. The American understandings have been reached with senior Iranian officials who report to him," the paper quoted an Obama administration official as saying.
    
It's not clear that Obama's opponent Mitt Romney would go through with the negotiation should he win election. Romney has repeatedly criticized the president as showing weakness on Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat, the paper said.

(Agencies)

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