WASHINGTON — 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 U.S. counterparts that they want to know with whom they would be negotiating.
The White House publicly 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,” said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman.
He said the administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”
Word of a possible agreement to meet one-on-one occurred just two weeks before Election Day.
Such an agreement could help Mr. Obama make the case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in efforts 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 more time.
It is not clear whether Mr. Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, would go through with such one-on-one talks with Iran if he wins the election. Mr. Romney has repeatedly criticized the President as showing weakness on Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat.
There is still a chance the initiative could fall through, even if Mr. Obama is re-elected.
Iran has a history of using the promise of diplomacy to ease international pressure on it.
In this case, U.S. officials said they were uncertain whether Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had signed off on the effort. The U.S. understandings have been reached with senior Iranian officials who report to him, one administration official said.
Even if the two sides sit down, U.S. officials worry that Iran could prolong the negotiations to try to forestall military action and enable it to complete critical elements of its nuclear program, particularly at underground sites.
Some U.S. officials would like to limit the talks to Iran’s nuclear program, one official said, while Iran has indicated that it wants to broaden the agenda to include Syria, Bahrain, and other issues.
The question of how best to deal with Iran has political ramifications for Mr. Romney as well. He has accused Mr. Obama of weakness, but the Republican nominee has given few specifics about what he would do differently.
The prospect of one-on-one negotiations could put Mr. Romney in an awkward spot, because he has opposed allowing Iran to enrich uranium to any level — a concession that experts say will probably figure in any deal on the nuclear program.
How Mr. Romney responds could signal how he would act if he becomes commander in chief. The danger of opposing such a diplomatic initiative is that it could make him look as if he is willing to risk another U.S. war without exhausting alternatives.
“It would be unconscionable to go to war if we haven’t had such discussions,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who led talks with Iran as undersecretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.
“While we should preserve the use of force as a last resort, negotiating first with Iran makes sense,” Mr. Burns said. “What are we going to do instead? Drive straight into a brick wall called war in 2013, and not try to talk to them?”
The administration, officials said, 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.
Israeli officials initially expressed an openness to a diplomatic initiative.
But Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said on Saturday that the Obama Administration had not informed Israel and that the Israeli government feared Iran would use new talks to “advance their nuclear weapons program.”
“We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” Mr. Oren said.
Dennis Ross, who oversaw Iran policy for the White House until early 2012, says one reason direct talks would make sense is that the current major-power negotiations are bogged down in incremental efforts, which may not achieve a solution in time to prevent a military strike.
Mr. Ross said the United States could make Iran an “endgame proposal,” under which Tehran would be allowed to maintain a civil nuclear power industry. Such a deal would resolve, in one stroke, issues like Iran’s enrichment of uranium and the monitoring of its nuclear facilities.