Senior U.S. official on Iran channel: ‘We want to see whether they are prepared’ to take steps to lower tensions
“The question is whether they are willing to take steps that will show that they are open to trying to change the current trajectory,” a senior U.S. official said June 12.
American officials said they have held recent indirect talks with Iran both to convey “unambiguous” warnings that Iran should not conduct weapons-grade enrichment; and to urge Iran to take steps to demonstrate that it is willing to de-escalate tensions. Such steps, such as providing greater access to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and releasing American citizens jailed by Iran, would advance prospects for a potential diplomatic process, a senior U.S. official said.
“We’ve been very clear in messages to Iran through whatever existing channels, that if they were to take some steps, it could lead us to a very dangerous spot, and we’ve been very clear that they should avoid them,” a senior U.S. official, speaking not for attribution, said in an interview Monday (June 12).
“Separately, we have told them we are interested in a de-escalatory path,” the senior U.S. official said. “And we want to see whether they are prepared to do that.”
“The question is whether they are willing to take steps that will show that they are open to trying to change the current trajectory,” he said. “That could open up different possibilities and create a different context for a potential diplomatic process.”
The recent indirect U.S.-Iran talks, reported to have occurred in Oman in May, included on the U.S. side National Security Council Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk, as well as U.S. Special Envoy on Iran Robert Malley. The Iran team was reported to have been led by Deputy Foreign Minister and Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri.
Bagheri tweeted today (June 13) that he met with counterparts from the three European (E3) parties to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Britain, France and Germany, in the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi “to discuss a range of issues and mutual concerns.” A European official indicated the meeting occurred on Monday (June 12).
“E3 political directors met their Iranian counterpart for talks on 12 June,” a spokesperson for the German Federal Foreign Office told me by email. “The discussion covered a wide range of issues and concerns including Iran’s nuclear program.”
A European source indicated that the meeting did not constitute a negotiation on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the 2015 nuclear pact, which then U.S. President Trump quit in 2018.
Israel wants U.S. to adopt stronger deterrence on Iran
While Israel does not object to the diplomacy, Israel prefers that the United States enhance deterrence against Iran through more robust demonstrations of willingness to use military force.
“Israel is not against any diplomatic deal with Iran,” a person familiar with Israeli thinking said. “Israel believes that for a deal to improve the situation and not worsen it, it must have the backbone of strong deterrence vis a vis Iran.”
Israeli officials have been cited in recent Israeli media reports disclosing alleged details about the recent US-Iran indirect talks in Oman, and expressing concern that whatever de-escalation understanding might be reached between Washington and Tehran could be a back door into reviving the nuclear deal.
An NSC spokesperson said there is no U.S./Iran interim deal in the works.
“The bottom line is there is no interim deal in the works,” the NSC spokesperson told me June 12. “That is misleading and false.”
“I think what we continue to do is engage in the region,” the NSC spokesperson said. “Our efforts are focused primarily…on constraining Iran’s destabilizing behavior. One aspect of that is we want to make sure Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Herzog said he found my June 8 report characterizing the Israeli media reports as conveying leaks intended to try to derail a possible U.S./Iran understanding as “false and insulting.”
Iran: Oman talks not secret
Iran, meantime, seems to be calculating that the rumors of sensitive talks boost domestic economic confidence that a deal could be in the offing, and could help shore up the Iranian currency.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said Monday that the indirect talks with the United States held in the Omani capital Muscat were not a big secret.
“The Muscat negotiations were not secret and we conduct indirect and mediated talks through intermediaries, especially considering the efforts of the Omani authorities,” Iran MFA spokesman Nasser Kanaani told journalists at the ministry press briefing June 12, journalist Abas Aslani reported. “It is part of the ongoing process.”
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, speaking to Iran’s civil nuclear agency workers on June 11, seemed to offer qualified support for a recent agreement struck between Iran and the IAEA to enhance transparency measures, even while he expressed his usual mistrust that the West fails to honors its deals with Iran.
“You may want to reach agreements in some fields,” Khamenei said, Aslani reported at Iran Nuances. “Nothing is wrong with agreements, but the infrastructure of the nuclear industry must remain undamaged.”
“I think his remarks kind of provided support for the negotiating team,” an Iranian analyst interpreted his comments, suggesting they might quell any domestic controversy over the reported diplomatic channel with the United States.
Another Iran expert wondered if the remarks signaled that he might soon give the nod to direct U.S. Iran talks. (Two other diplomats indicated that they generally refrained from trying to “operationally interpret” Khamenei’s commentary, as one put it.)
The senior U.S. official suggested that Iran might find it in its interest to move towards direct talks at some point, given what it says publicly that it is seeking. But we’re not there yet, he said.
U.S. officials, asked if (indirect or otherwise) U.S. Iran talks were expected to resume in Oman (or elsewhere) shortly, hedged a bit, avoiding getting pinned down on a date or if another round could occur as soon as later this week.
I don't think there's any engagement that’s imminent or around the corner, the senior U.S. official said.
The NSC spokesperson also was vague.
NSC Middle East coordinator McGurk “travels routinely to the region,” the spokesperson said. “That is part of what his portfolio entails. We don’t always announce such routine travel.”
The NSC official added: “I point to this travel because it demonstrates how closely we are coordinating with our partners on various issues,” including on Iran, the Yemen ceasefire, now in its 15th month, and trying to get a ceasefire in Sudan.
Diplomatic, by Laura Rozen is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.