WASHINGTON – The White House on Sunday sought to distance itself from advisers to Barack Obama who reportedly met with Syrian and Iranian officials during Obama's transition to power.
"The president made it very clear to the transition team that there would be no contacts with foreign government officials during the transition," said National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer.
Obama officially took over the White House on January 20, after winning the November 4th presidential election to replace outgoing president George W. Bush.
A group of experts under the auspices of a think-tank known as the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) announced Thursday that they met for more than two hours in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The group included Ellen Laipson, a former White House adviser under president Bill Clinton and a member of the Obama transition team.
That meeting took place on January 11, said USIP, a bipartisan think tank financed by Congress.
In addition, nuclear non-proliferation experts had several "very, very high-level" contacts in the last few months with Iranian leaders, Jeffrey Boutwell, executive director for the US branch of the Pugwash group, an international organization of scientists which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, told AFP on Friday.
Former defense secretary William Perry, who served in Obama's election campaign, participated in some of these meetings focused on "a wide range of issues that separate Iran from the West: not only their nuclear program but the Middle East peace process, Persian Gulf issues," Boutwell told AFP.
The Pugwash official declined to name the other participants, except to say they had considerable clout.
In response, a senior administration official said "those reports are inaccurate," but declined to elaborate.
The Syrian president himself revealed on Monday that "dialogue started some weeks ago in a serious manner through personalities who are close to the administration and who were dispatched by the administration."
The United States accuses Syria of supporting "terrorist" groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, of destabilizing Lebanon and of allowing armed men to transit its territory to fight US-led forces in Iraq.
Washington and Tehran, which have had no diplomatic ties for nearly 30 years, differ sharply over Iran's nuclear program. Washington charges the program is a covert military one, but Tehran says it is for nuclear energy.
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