I was a secret back channel to the Khomeini Regime in 1985. If you're interested in all the details, help yourself to the book I wrote about it. So when I read about the current crop of secret diplomats, and their dealings with (thus far unnamed) Iranians, I know what they went through. It's not always fun.
We don't know how many secret back channels were used to lay the groundwork for the "interim agreement" between Iran and The Six (aka the 5+1, the United States, Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia). From time to time some journalist or another comes up with a name of one of our alleged secret diplomats (the most famous of which is that of top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, a story I don't believe), and on other occasions we think we can see that secret diplomacy is going on, as with the American gift to Iran of an ancient Persian chalice that turned out to be a phony, or as with the hard-to-explain release of an Iranian convicted of violating the arms embargo.
A lot of the coverage implies that the use of secret back channels is something new. It isn't. There have been secret talks with the leaders of the Islamic Republic ever since the Revolution of 1979, and they have continued ever since. In the case of Obama, the secret contacts began during the election campaign of 2008, when William Miller, a former diplomat and staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, flew back and forth between Washington and Tehran. He was an ideal choice: an Obama loyalist, a believer in the possibility of a US-Iranian modus vivendi, and a trained diplomat, as he happily discussed his role with me a few years ago. Oddly, with all the current attention to the secret back channels, his name hasn't surfaced.
Their mission isn't very glamorous: they are glorified couriers, carrying messages from the White House to the Iranian leaders, and returning with the Iranian responses. Given the long-standing conflict between us, and the many Americans killed by Iranians and their proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither side can trust the other. Indeed, each side wants some evidence that they are really talking to a real representative, and not just some opportunist. In my case, specific words were put into speeches by President Reagan and Vice President Bush (whom the Iranians believed was the real powerhouse of the administration, given that he had run the CIA), and the same was done by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. It would not surprise me to learn that similar moves were made this time around.
I've been told by Iranian friends who must remain anonymous that the principal Iranian interlocutor was Mohammad Javad Larijani, the eldest of five brothers who make up one of the most powerful families in the country. One is now Speaker of Parliament, another is Justice Minister. Mohammad Javad is in charge of human rights, and travels frequently to Geneva and New York, where some of the secret talks were held. I think he was an ideal choice for Ali KHamenei: a trusted loyalist, fluent in English, skilled in negotiation.
The "Interim Agreement" came after nearly five years of secret diplomacy, and it doesn't seem to me that it was all that easy at the end. Obama and Kerry were quite confident that a deal was done at the time of the first meeting in Geneva -- there wasn't a national security journalist in Washington who hadn't been told that -- but it didn't happen. And the second time around, it looked for a while that a second failure was in the works. The Iranian press was running stories blaming The Six for the new fiasco.
So all that secret diplomacy only got everyone to the table; it didn't seal a deal. Couriers can't make deals, after all. They just carry messages. It takes the big guys to get the seals and signatures on the page. And even then, you don't always get what you think you've paid for.
After all, The Six and the Iranians are still haggling over some of the details.