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Secrecy in service to peace

A world without political secrets would be a world of perpetual bloodshed, for no longstanding conflict has been resolved without covert diplomacy.

A world without political secrets would be a world of perpetual bloodshed, for no longstanding conflict has been resolved without covert diplomacy.

THE British spy was known to his interlocutors as "mountain climber" his contact was a passionate Irish Republican imbued with Christian pacifism. This unlikely pair established a secret channel between the IRA and the British government that started as long ago as 1973 and was crucial to settling Northern Ireland's conflict. Michael Oatley, an MI6 officer (the "mountain climber"), and Brendan Duddy, a Derry businessman, were the joint custodians of this open line between two supposedly implacable foes.

There may be no obvious link between covert peacemaking in the back streets of Belfast four decades ago and the latest talk of war between Israel and Iran, but all intractable conflicts share one feature: they will never be resolved by open, set-piece diplomacy alone.

Julian Assange and his dwindling band of followers might wish for a world without political secrets. If, heaven forbid, that were ever to happen, they would create a world of eternal bloodshed, for no longstanding conflict has ever been resolved without covert contacts, often conducted through deniable back channels.

The nuclear-tipped confrontation between Iran and the rest of the world is no exception and the urgency of defusing this ticking time bomb beneath world affairs has become greater this week. Once again, Israel is making clear that its patience is wearing thin: unnamed "decision-makers" have briefed the local press that if no one else prevents Iran from seizing the ability to make nuclear weapons, then the Israeli air force might have to do the job.

Israel is not above sabre-rattling and supposed moments of truth in the Iranian crisis have been annual events since at least 2008. But unless something changes, the moment of truth really will arrive one day. And classic open diplomacy will not come to the rescue.

That was obvious to anyone who observed the formal talks between Iran and its adversaries in Moscow in June. Even the shape of the furniture turned out to be a bone of contention during this singularly pointless affair. The rectangular table laid on by the Russian hosts was bound to create a "competitive atmosphere", complained an Iranian news agency. Did no one realise that placing everyone in a circle would be far more convivial?

After two days of fruitless negotiations, the world's most dangerous looming crisis remained, well, dangerous and looming. With journalists loitering in every corridor, eager to report the first whisper of a concession, all sides were under pressure to play safe and stick to their existing positions. If anything, the conditions of set-piece summitry risked widening the gap by encouraging posture and rhetoric.

Seven countries were represented in Moscow, but only two really mattered: Iran and the United States. Ultimately, the deadlock will only be broken if these two rivals can strike a deal. Wendy Sherman, No. 3 in the US State Department, sat opposite Saeed Jalili, head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, at the controversially shaped table. But the two never met one-on-one.

The Americans had offered a bilateral meeting, but Jalili declined. This was quite understandable, for a public meeting with the Great Satan's emissaries would have exposed Jalili to attack in the viper's nest of Iranian domestic politics, quite possibly ending his career.

If total secrecy is guaranteed, however, the impossible can sometimes happen. At the final press conference in Moscow, Jalili took the opportunity to denounce Israel's leaders as "terrorists" whose hands were "dripping with blood". You would not have thought that Jalili's predecessors had once been in regular contact with Israel. Thrust together by their shared antipathy towards Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Iran and Israel had a covert strategic relationship for much of the 1980s.

At that time, Israel even sold weapons to Iran for use against the tyrant in Baghdad. The central transaction of the Iran-Contra affair was the delivery of Israeli arms to Iran, the proceeds of which were then channelled to Contra rebels in Nicaragua, via the Reagan administration in the US.

The back channel between Israel and Iran was handled by David Kimche, a former deputy head of Mossad, who was then director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry. For years, Kimche held secret meetings with the Islamic republic's leaders, sometimes in European cities, sometimes in Tehran. On one occasion, his talks with "a certain ayatollah" in Hamburg went so well that the Iranian invited Kimche to view a secret treasure trove. Inside a warehouse on the Hamburg docks, the Israeli was shown a fabulous collection of Persian carpets, all confiscated from the Shah.

After his official retirement from government service in 1989, Kimche remained a regular visitor to Tehran. A US television crew reporting from the Iranian capital in 1991 found that "whenever we went to interview Islamic revolutionary government officials, David Kimche seemed to be just leaving their offices".

Because of the paramount importance of secrecy, intelligence officers are usually best placed for contacts of this kind. At the height of apartheid in South Africa, when the black townships were in flames and the African National Congress was openly campaigning to make the country "ungovernable", President P.W. Botha was reviled as an obdurate barrier to progress.

In fact, he was sending his intelligence chief, Niel Barnard, to a jail outside Cape Town for secret talks with Nelson Mandela. The spy and the prisoner met 47 times in less than two years, planning the future of their country over tea and sandwiches. Not until South Africa had completed its transition to majority rule was the fact of these meetings revealed.

"You can never, in my view, start real negotiations between people in a situation like we've been in and, from the word go, make it public knowledge," Barnard later said. "Each and every side had to give so much that you can never do it under the public eye."

This rule also applies to lesser disputes. After Zimbabwe's bloodstained election of 2008, Heidi Holland, the author of a study of President Robert Mugabe, tried to set up a back channel between her subject and the British government. As it happens, I once lived and worked in Zimbabwe, so she kept me informed about her efforts while swearing me to secrecy. Tragically, Holland died last week, so I feel able to disclose her efforts to heal the rift between Britain and Zimbabwe.

Holland offered the previous British government a channel to Mugabe, via a carefully chosen intermediary who had served as a Zimbabwean cabinet minister for many years before moving to Britain. But the idea fell at the first hurdle: the Foreign Office was not interested.

In August 2008, Holland sent me an account of a meeting between the chosen intermediary and a Foreign Office official. "He offered to undertake a back-channel approach but she [the diplomat] 'just shrugged'. He tried to push it but to no avail." Zimbabwe's plight was clearly not important enough for Britain to invest in this approach.

Iran's crisis, however, is on an entirely different plane. We must hope that two carefully chosen interlocutors, one American "mountain climber" and one Iranian (and, who knows, perhaps even an Israeli) are meeting regularly in a neutral setting. Their talks would be entirely secret. And quite right too.

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