Discover more from Diplomatic, by Laura Rozen
U.S. sees some progress in Iran de-escalation efforts
“We’re very clear that we are going to protect our interests, we’re going to protect our people, and we’re not pulling any punches with the Iranians,” a U.S. official said.
With the prisoner deal announced earlier this month, reports that Iran has significantly slowed its accumulation of 60% higher enriched uranium, the de-facto extension of the Yemen truce going on 18 months and broader Iranian-Saudi rapprochement, and the absence of a repeat of deadly tit-for-tat clashes between U.S. and Iranian proxy forces that killed a U.S. contractor in Syria in March, the United States sees some signs of an easing of tensions with Iran and broader regional de-escalation which it supports, a U.S. official familiar with indirect talks with Iran said in an interview Friday (Aug. 18).
“There is a misperception out there that we are being soft on Iran, that we want to rush back into things more than the Iranians do. … And I think the Iranians understand that that is not where we are,” the U.S. official, speaking not for attribution, said. “And we've made that very clear, especially since last year. […] We're doing deterrence. We're doing pressure. We're doing diplomacy.”
Regarding a March 23 drone attack that killed a U.S. Defense Department contractor and wounded six other Americans at a base in northeastern Syria, “we punched back very quickly to that,” the U.S. official said. (U.S. air strikes in response killed eight pro-Iran fighters at targets in eastern Syria, the New York Times reported March 24.)
“We’re very clear that we are going to protect our interests, we’re going to protect our people,” the U.S. official said. “And we’re not pulling any punches with the Iranians.”
“And I think that things like the fact that we have continued our deterrent posture, including in the maritime domain, including in the region,… working with partners and allies, these have all sent a very clear signal to the Iranians that we're not being soft on them,” the official said.
“I think they’re starting to wake up to the fact that we’re not soft on them,” he said. “And I think people in their system are seeing that.”
The Oman channel
The deadly tit for tat clashes in Syria in March helped spur a U.S. effort to pursue indirect talks with Iran via Oman to explore a possible path to de-escalation. U.S. officials involved in those talks include National Security Council Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk, as well as Abram Paley, the deputy U.S. special envoy on Iran, who since June has been performing the duties of the envoy, Rob Malley. Malley, who went on leave in June following the suspension of his security clearance, announced last week that he will be teaching at Princeton University in the fall, presumably ‘til the matter is resolved.
“While I am on leave from the State Department, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with the next generation of public servants at the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University,” Malley said. “I look forward to my time at Princeton and returning to government service in due course.”
Paley, a career Foreign Service officer, previously served as the Middle East advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris, and has served in State Department posts in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iraq and China. He also served in the Obama administration NSC working on Yemen.
Qatar mediating indirect U.S. Iran talks to free prisoners
A separate channel, mediated by Qatar, helped clinch a deal this month that got four U.S. citizens moved from Iran’s Evin prison to house arrest at an Iranian hotel, joined by a fifth U.S. citizen who was already on house arrest. U.S. officials said this month that the five unjustly detained U.S. citizens should be returned to the U.S. after the transfer of $6 billion in Iran funds currently in bank accounts in South Korea to bank accounts in Qatar. The process was expected to take a few weeks, possibly making way for the Americans to return to the U.S. in September.
Asked his assessment of if the Iranians are interested in lowering tensions with the U.S., the U.S. official said he thinks parts of the Iranian system are interested in escalation, but other parts believe it does not serve Iran’s interests.
“I think there are parts of their system that recognize escalation does not address some of their critical needs …Escalation is not going to create a scenario where they get the things they need,” like sanctions relief, the official said. “And they've also seen, because we… protect our interests, we punch back, we're not pulling any punches…I feel like the Iranians have seen that. And so that is changing their calculus.”
The administration’s pursuit of a lowering of flashpoints in the region, and support for greater regional integration, is “fully lashed up with our partners and allies” in the region and Europe, the official said.
“This administration has been very clear that we're going to be very closely aligned with the Israelis, we're going to be in constant contact with them,” the U.S. official said. “The same thing with our other regional partners. Same thing with the Europeans.”
“We're taking a pragmatic approach to the region, a pragmatic approach to Iran,” he said. “We're not trying to change the entire region.”
On prospect of resumed nuclear talks, ‘we’re not rushing back into anything’
As to whether the U.S. sees the possibility of resuming some sort of nuclear talks with Iran in some format at some point, the official suggested continued de-escalation could create space for nuclear diplomacy, but stressed the U.S. is not rushing into it.
“We’re not rushing back into anything,” he said. “We've said clearly that we think there needs to be de-escalation to create space for diplomacy.”
“What we're trying to do is, is find a way to kind of move the ball forward,” he said. “But Iran has to be a reasonable actor in all of that as well. If they’re escalating, there's just not going to be a way to do any of that. If they cooperate with the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA, they show that they are serious about continuing these trends in the region to kind of de-escalate things--you know, the visit of the [Iranian] foreign minister to Saudi Arabia,…it is something that we've always supported and that we will continue to support.”
The U.S. official did not confirm an August 11 Wall Street Journal report that said that Iran had significantly slowed its accumulation of higher 60% enriched uranium, and down-blended some of its 60% stockpile, but said if accurate the U.S. would welcome the steps.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is expected to issue its next reports on Iran’s program ahead of the next IAEA Board of Governors meeting scheduled to start in Vienna on Sept. 11.