By HELENE COOPER and MARK LANDLER
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.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has the last word on whether talks should occur.
Iranian officials have insisted that the talks wait until after the presidential election, a senior administration official said, telling their American counterparts that they want to know with whom they would be negotiating.
News of the agreement — a result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term — comes at a critical moment in the presidential contest, just two weeks before Election Day and the weekend before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy.
It has the potential to help Mr. Obama make the case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the decade-long effort 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 time.