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Secret US-Iran meetings held in Geneva

Talks between Iran and the United States in Geneva are shrouded in secrecy Keystone

Academics and specialists from Iran, the United States and Europe have been meeting regularly in the Swiss city of Geneva for high level but informal talks.

This content was published on April 7, 2009 - 20:22

Switzerland's Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said she was aware of the ongoing contacts over the past few years but had not played an active role.

"The talks are on a purely informal level and the foreign ministry is not involved," Calmy-Rey said on Tuesday.

The meetings – known as the Track II process – involving academics from Iran and the US, European Union states, Switzerland, Arab countries and Israel have all been held in Geneva, according to an article in Tuesday's Le Temps newspaper.

The Geneva-based daily says about 30 participants were present at the meetings which took place mainly in Geneva, but also in other European cities. The last talks were reportedly held from March 6-8.

In total, up to 400 people have attended secret talks but are said to want to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals by the Iranian government.

Washington and Tehran broke off diplomatic relations 30 years ago in the wake of Iran's Islamic revolution. Switzerland has been representing the interests of the US in Tehran since 1980.

Mutual understanding

Le Temps also quotes an unnamed professor who has participated in the secret talks as saying that the dialogue can help to further mutual understanding.

He says participants can speak freely and are less tempted to take political stands in the closed-door meetings.

Such meetings have taken place with the approval of Tehran and Washington, Le Temps believes.

It says a person close to the Iranian government and an ambassador from another state were present at a gathering at the beginning of March.

Nuclear

The participants, which included strategic and nuclear experts and international relations specialists, reportedly discussed Iran's nuclear technology.

Iran, under investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), denies it is seeking a nuclear arsenal. It claims its uranium enrichment work is to supply energy for peaceful means.

Last week, the IAEA welcomed a coordinated approach by the US and Russia to pursue diplomacy on Iran instead of policy focused isolating and threatening the Islamic republic.

The US government in 2002 described Iran as part of the "axis of evil" and has not have direct relations for three decades. Relations could thaw under the administration of US President Barack Obama.

Diplomatic overture

Observers point out that it is too early to say whether informal talks will result in a deal but add that the discussions have widened the scope of contacts between the two countries.

Obama last month called on Iran to renew dialogue. In Turkey on Monday, he said the US "is not, and will never be, at war with Islam".

The leading reformist candidate in Iran's June presidential elections, Hossein Mousavi, has said he will negotiate with the US but that Iran will not give up its nuclear programme.

Le Temps says the venue for informal meetings has moved away from Geneva for the time being, apparently because of increasing public interest in the talks. It is possible that the meetings will return to Geneva.

"This could become even more likely if the diplomatic drive by the Obama administration is beginning to bear fruit," wrote Le Temps.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser

Switzerland and Iran

Switzerland has been representing the interests of the US in Iran since 1980.

Livia Leu Agosti is Swiss ambassador to Tehran, likely the first top female diplomat to Iran.

Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey made a controversial visit to Tehran last year to witness the signing of gas deal between the Iranian government and a private Swiss energy company.

Last year, a high-ranking US official took part in talks between Iran and other major powers in Geneva.

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International Geneva

Geneva is home to the headquarters of 22 international organisations, such as the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization and International Committee of the Red Cross.

The city is the European seat of the United Nations.

In all, around 40,000 international diplomats and civil servants are based in Geneva.

In addition there are around 2,400 staff working for non-governmental organisations.

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