NEW YORK – Top-level Iranian and American officials participated in four closed-door international conferences last year to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program, the director of the sponsoring organization confirmed to WND.

Jeffrey Boutwell, the Washington, D.C.-based executive director of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, insisted the meetings were unofficial gatherings in which the participants did not represent their governments in direct negotiations.

Earlier this week, Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hossein Ehlam denied reports of secret meetings between unofficial representatives of the Obama administration and the Iranian government coordinated by the Pugwash Group, as reported by WND Sunday.

But Boutwell said three of the Pugwash meetings with Iran were held in The Hague, Netherlands, in March, June and August. The final meeting took place in Vienna in December.

The Pugwash Conferences, according to its home website in the UK, originated in the Russell-Einsein Manifesto of 1955, which called on scientists to oppose the development of thermonuclear weapons. The group’s name is derived from the venue of its first meeting in the Canadian village of Pugwash, Nova Scotia, in 1957.

Boutwell said the meetings were held under Pugwash rules, which require complete secrecy. He said he was not liberty to disclose the names of the participants or confirm or deny the attendance of any particular participant.

He further told WND the agendas of the meetings with Iran were not available for publication and none of the comments made during the meetings were recorded or otherwise available for public disclosure.

Boutwell initially contacted WND by e-mail to object that a WND story earlier this week had given the impression the Pugwash meetings involved government-to-government negotiations between the Obama administration and Iran.

“Our conversations are private and off-the-record, to try to find common ground where relations can be improved,” Boutwell told WND. “Everyone attends our meetings in their personal capacity, and they are free to talk about whatever they want to, because they know they won’t be quoted by other people after the meeting.”

Because of the sensitivity of the topics discussed, Boutwell said, Pugwash wants the participants “to come and feel fully free to be as frank as possible, to both criticize each other and to look for common ground.”

“We promise the participants there will be no written record and no quotation of them following the meeting,” he explained.

When asked about the Iranian government officials who attended the meetings, Boutwell responded, “I can’t comment any of the participants or anything specifically that was said. I’m not going to say anything further on that. No comment.”

“We never have a set agenda,” he added. “It’s really whatever people feel is most important to talk about. So, the discussions can be very wide-ranging.”

Talking uranium enrichment

Boutwell said, however, that with respect to Iran, “we focus on the usual topics that are causing trouble at the moment – certainly Iran’s nuclear program.”

“And we had experts there who could talk about uranium enrichment and trying to assure there was adequate transparency so there would be no diversion to military uses,” he said.

Boutwell did confirm that Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, a physicist on the faculty of the University of Milan and the secretary-general of Pugwash Conferences, was the “prime mover” in the meetings with Iran.

“Paolo Cotta-Ramusino attended all four meetings,” Boutwell said. “He is the one who got in touch with Iranians and Americans, but with all the international participants who attended – Europeans, Russians, South Asians, many different people at these meetings – to talk in an international context about Iran and various ways that participants thought that current tensions could be diffused.”

The role of his group, Boutwell said, is “to try to bring together parties in conflict to discuss their differences and to find areas of accommodation and common ground between them so that tensions can be reduced.”

Boutwell said each meeting had been attended by approximately 20 to 30 people and lasted approximately two days.

Even though he declined to reveal the participants or the contents of the closed-door meetings, Boutwell e-mailed WND prior to a telephone interview an article published in The Cable, a blog established for the magazine Foreign Policy, a publication of the Slate Group, a division of WashingtonPost.Newsweek Interactive in Washington, D.C.

In his e-mail, Boutwell described the article as “the best, most accurate story that’s appeared so far” on the meetings with Iran that his group organized.

The Cable reported that at least one of the Pugwash meetings with Iran was attended by Gary Samore, the former Clinton administration National Security Council nuclear nonproliferation expert, who has been named by President Obama to serve as the new U.S. government-wide coordinator on the prevention of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

This week, Obama appointed Samore to establish a non-proliferation office at the White House to oversee talks with Russia aimed at slashing each country’s stockpile of nuclear weapons by 80 percent, to 1,000 nuclear warheads each, according to the Times of London.

The Cable also disclosed former Defense Secretary William Perry, who served in Obama’s presidential election campaign, participated in the meetings.

The Cable named two Iranian government officials as attendees: Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, and Mojtaba Samareh-Hashemi, a senior aide to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Boutwell noted, “Iran does have the right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium.”

WND asked Boutwell if officials who hold government responsibilities, or could in the future, participate in the meetings, though they come in an unofficial, personal capacity.

“That’s possible,” he said.

Samore told The Cable he attended the Pugwash meeting on Iran at The Hague in his private capacity as a nonproliferation expert at the Council of Foreign Relations.

WND asked Boutwell what the Iranian meetings produced toward reduction of tensions, other than suggestions by Moscow to enrich uranium for Iran for peaceful purposes at a Russian facility located outside Iran.

“All I can say on that is that Iran is a pretty complex country, and there is no ‘one decision-making’ power within the country,” he answered. “There are various foci of decision-making authorities within Iran, and it’s my belief, as well as that of other people who have worked on Iran, that there are differences of opinion within Iran as to how to resolve this issue.”

Boutwell said his group is trying to “probe and investigate how a solution might come about that could serve Iran’s interest of wanting a secure fuel supply for its nuclear power plants when they come online, but that would also give the international community almost 100 percent assurance that there could be no diversion of that fuel into a nuclear weapons program.”

“So, we just continue to try and investigate multi-lateral solutions, internationalization of the fuel cycle, foreign supplies of nuclear fuel as the Russians have proposed,” he said.

Boutwell said his group is “trying to probe and investigate those kinds of solutions with various Iranians and others from Russia and Europe and the United States, to see if at some point that could be part of a larger agreement between Iran and the West to resolve not only the nuclear issue, but also other outstanding issues related to Iran’s integration into the world economic community and legitimate concerns the West has about Iran’s support for groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.”

“I think it’s important not just to see the nuclear issue in isolation, but to see the nuclear issue integrated with other very real concerns and issues that divide Iran from the outside world, both from the Iranian perspective, but also from the Western perspective,” he said.

‘Why not dialogue?’

WND asked Boutwell if he had considered whether the Iranians intentionally create an illusion of internal disagreement or multi-channels of decision-making within the country as a negotiating tactic to prolong talks while continuing to enrich uranium and divert nuclear efforts to a weapons program.

“There are people who can have that view, and they are entitled to have that view,” he replied. “To me that does not forego trying to find areas of agreement with the relevant parties in Iran.”

WND then asked if Boutwell had considered that the Iranians might use groups like Pugwash to play into a tactic of increasing international hopes that since dialogue is occurring, negotiations might find resolutions even though Iran has no intention of changing its nuclear policy.

“People are entitled to that view,” he said. “My response would be that sanctions have not been effective, so why not dialogue?”

WND asked Boutwell to comment on IAEA declarations that Iran had not been transparent with its nuclear program and doubts remained regarding whether it was diverting nuclear efforts to a weapons program.

“I think I’m going to close the conversation now,” Boutwell insisted. “We are now getting into negotiating in public about what the best course is with Iran, and our meetings are private and off-the-record, and we just want to get people together to search for solutions.

“No one is claiming or expecting it to be easy,” he said, trying to end the interview. “No one is claiming that Iran hasn’t been guilty of not fulfilling all their obligations under the IAEA. But I’m not going to put out in public the best way I think of moving forward, except to say that knowledge is better than ignorance. The more we can talk to the Iranians and probe possible areas of agreement, the better.”

Finally, WND asked if Pugwash meetings had a tendency to become semi-official back-channels of communication, because it was possible for current or future government officials to attend and participate.

Also, WND asked if the Iranians participated in Pugwash meetings by a different set of rules than Westerners, such that it is hard to know whether the people participating from Iran are acting in an official or an unofficial capacity.

“I have no comment,” he said, concluding the interview.

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