The United States embassy in Baku has categorically denied a report in The Times which claimed that Washington and Tehran will conduct “secret talks” in Baku this week about restoring some form of ties between the United States and Iran after an almost 35-year break.
Citing an anonymous Iranian government advisor, The Times’ Hugh Tomlinson reported on November 10 that the supposed talks would cover setting up in Tehran “an umbrella office for US trade” or, possibly, “a cultural office, purely for academic exchanges.”
The Times wrote that Mohammad Reza Sabzalipour, head of Iran’s World Trade Center, would lead the alleged talks with the US side in Baku. Azerbaijani officials so far have not made any comments.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is set to visit the Azerbaijani capital on November 12 for a state visit, but no public indication has been made that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev intends to play intermediary for the US.
In a statement to the pro-government Azerbaijani news agency Trend, however, the US embassy to Baku rejected The Times story as “completely untrue.”
“[W]e have had no conversations, and have no plans to engage in conversations, in trade talks or any talks similar to those described in this misleading news story,” read the statement, published on November 11.
Sabzalipour, however, had his own take. On November 11, he remarked that “reciprocal visits by the Iranian and the US economic delegations” are "on the agenda" of Tehran's World Trade Center. Details will be forthcoming "when the grounds are prepared," he added.
He denied, though, that he has had any recent meetings with the US government, Iran’s government-run Fars news agency reported.
Nonetheless, despite the American denials, the allegations about a US outreach toward Iran are not new.
The Times story follows on the heels of a Wall St. Journal report that US President Barack Obama recently wrote to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei about "shared interests" the two countries have in combating Islamic State militants.
Whether trade contacts would possibly feature into any official recognition of such alleged "shared interests" is unknown.
For now, Tehran appears to be hedging its bets. Sabzalipour, who has led Iranian delegations on several visits to the US, predicted that “trade offices will be opened in both countries one day in the future, but none of these plans will be finalized before the finalization of [the] Geneva nuclear deal.”
The Times also wrote that the economic rapprochement plans are dependent on reaching an agreement on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
At latest report, no clear sign of such a breakthrough occurred at talks in Oman on November 10. A self-imposed deadline to reach a deal expires on November 24.