In an unforeseen development, the US initiated indirect talks with Iran in May, signaling Washington’s desire to de-escalate tensions between the two adversary states – even while publicly acting otherwise.
Hosted by the Sultanate of Oman, the indirect talks were attended by delegations of US and Iranian diplomats, but it is unclear whether any final agreement was reached, or, for that matter, what topic occupied the negotiations.
Despite countless rumors of nuclear negotiations being on the agenda in Muscat, Tehran has point-blank denied this. The Iranians have held firm that they will not entertain any temporary fixes to the 2015 nuclear agreement, which was unilaterally abandoned by the US in 2018.
While the secret negotiations may not directly pertain to Iran’s nuclear program, a potential formula for a deal has reportedly emerged, involving the mutual release of prisoners and the unfreezing of up to $10 billion held in South Korean banks and in Iraq, currently blocked by US sanctions.
But why would Washington offer up a slate of “rewards” to Iran for no obvious price? Especially given that the US has been the primary spoiler in prisoner exchange deals and the release of Iranian funds for years?
Washington’s two faces on Iran
On the surface, the US is assisting in the release of Iranian funds at the same time as the Pentagon escalates its threats against the Islamic Republic and stirs maritime tensions between their respective navies.
This kicked off in February, when Bloomberg published an unverified news report quoting two unnamed “senior diplomats” saying that Tehran had enriched uranium to 84 percent – “the highest level found by inspectors in the country to date, and a concentration just 6 percent below what’s needed for a weapon.” A nuclear bomb requires a 90-95 percent enrichment purity of 25 kilograms.
Iran immediately dismissed these reports, confirming through a senior official that Tehran had not carried out any uranium enrichment procedure to more than 60 percent.
In an unusual show of support for Tehran’s position, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in late May shut down the “84 percent” rumors by declaring its investigation of those allegations to be closed.
But as likely intended, the anonymously-sourced Bloomberg story spawned months of “Iran is close to a nuclear bomb” narratives, which has conveniently provided an excuse for increased US and Israeli threats against the Islamic Republic to gain leverage at the negotiating table.
‘Two weeks away’
In March, US Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley testified before a Congressional committee that Iran could potentially produce sufficient material for a nuclear bomb within a span of two weeks, requiring only a few additional months to complete the construction of the weapon.
Milley’s statement, it appears, was the start of a leverage-building campaign against Iran on the ground.
First, the US Navy in the Arabian Sea seized Iranian oil aboard a tanker en route to China. In response to the move, Iran detained in the Gulf of Oman a tanker carrying American oil en route from Kuwait to the United States. Less than a week later, Iran also detained an oil tanker as it transited the Strait of Hormuz towards the port of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.
This comes after statements by White House Spokesman John Kirby in which he claimed that his country has detected repeated Iranian threats to commercial shipping in the Gulf, and that the US Department of Defense will begin to strengthen its defense position in the region.
That round was like a field test to increase pressure before returning to the negotiating table, but the Iranian response, according to political sources in Tehran, thwarted American pressure.
After this public escalation, Washington secretly requested – via Oman – to open communications with Iran. US sources familiar with the indirect talks told Axios that “the goal of the negotiation is to reach an understanding on ways to de-escalate Iran’s nuclear program, its behavior in the region, as well as its intervention in the conflict in Ukraine.”
But actual US aims are far less ambitious than what is stated for public consumption, Iranian analyst Amin Berto tells The Cradle:
“The only thing the US wants now is to stop the increase in uranium enrichment in Iran, without military conflict, because the US is involved in the crisis of Russia and Ukraine and tension with China.”
The US is reluctant to engage in further conflicts in West Asia, as it recognizes the potential consequences of an Israeli aggression against Iran, which could escalate into a larger war in the geostrategic Persian Gulf.
Additionally, the US is not interested in allowing Iran to become a “nuclear threshold” state, where it possesses the capability to produce a nuclear bomb at any given time without actually taking that final step.
Turning things up a notch
Presupposing Tehran reaches 90 percent enrichment, both Israel and the US would find themselves with limited options.
They would either have to resort to war or accept the new reality, wherein they could attempt to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program, impose stricter sanctions, or incite internal unrest within Iran. However, it is important to note that all of these options have been previously explored without causing a significant shift in Tehran’s “behavior.”
Confronted with this reality, Washington is compelled to engage in negotiations with Iran and strive to reach an agreement that curbs the enrichment rate. The objective is to avert a war that would detrimentally impact American and Israeli interests in the region.
Furthermore, it aims to prevent the emergence of a “nuclear threshold” state in Iran, which could have far-reaching regional deterrent effects. It is important to note that tightening sanctions could potentially push Iran towards strengthening its alliances with counterweights Russia and China.
Sources familiar with the ongoing negotiations in Muscat suggest that the current discussions revolve around a new, partial agreement rather than a comprehensive one similar to the 2015 deal.
The proposed understanding requires the US to take the initial step of releasing Iran’s funds held abroad, reportedly in exchange for Iran not enriching uranium past 60 percent purity. The process of releasing Iranian funds has already commenced, including the transfer of over $6 billion in Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and more than $3 billion in Iranian funds from Iraq.
While the coming days are expected to witness the mutual release of prisoners, the sources indicate that what hinders reaching a final solution is determining the maximum enrichment level to which Iran is willing to adhere. The negotiation revolves around whether it will be set at 60 percent or 20 percent, in exchange for freezing the sanctions imposed on Iran.
What does Iran want?
Iran has shown openness to reaching a new understanding that would lead to the lifting of sanctions, the release of seized funds, and enhanced economic opportunities. The understanding would serve as a placeholder for the defunct Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal and not a replacement.
And Iran’s willingness to negotiate does not by any means imply acceptance of all US conditions. Tehran’s end goal will require the complete, verifiable lifting of US sanctions in exchange for establishing parameters on the country’s enrichment rate and nuclear activities.
This has been explained by recent statements of the Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, who said that “There is nothing wrong with the agreement (with the west), but the infrastructure of our nuclear industry should not be touched.”
The comments were made during a meeting with a group of Iranian nuclear experts on 11 June, during which Khamenei also explained that:
“We were dealt blows because of these misplaced trusts. It is very important that a nation and the officials of a country know and understand where they should trust and where not. We have understood it over the past twenty years. We understood who is trustworthy and who is not.”
Notably, Khamenei’s statements came shortly after the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mohammad Eslami, stated that Iran’s objective in enriching uranium is to lift US sanctions. Observing the historical context, it becomes apparent that Iran has increased its enrichment levels in response to persistent Israeli hostilities, often with US support, targeting its nuclear infrastructure. These escalations have also been prompted by incidents like the assassination of nuclear scientists, exemplified by the case of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020.
Where does this leave Israel?
Only Israel, who incidentally views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, maintains that a US-Iran backroom agreement is imminent.
While Tehran and Washington have denied making any significant progress in reviving the nuclear agreement, Israel expresses doubts over these claims. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated during a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, after his visit to Saudi Arabia, that Israel opposes any US agreement with Iran, and that “No deal with Iran will oblige Israel, which will do everything to defend itself.”
According to a report by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, any new nuclear agreement between Washington and Tehran will reflect a danger to Israel through several factors, most notably that “Iran is likely to continue to develop nuclear weapons technology and ballistic missile programs”; and that the agreement will provide Iran with tens of billions of dollars, which will enable it to enhance its military capabilities and the capabilities of its allies in West Asia.
The Israeli think-tank also noted the great concern experienced by the entity’s officials in terms of their inability to influence the Biden administration and Congress:
“However, some senior officials in the Israeli security establishment believe that a new temporary nuclear agreement between Iran and the major powers might be the lesser of two evils compared to the current situation, where Iran continues to pursue its nuclear ambitions unchecked.”
The last point about Iran’s unchecked pursuit of nuclear ambitions is a key driver for Washington to seek an understanding with Tehran – mainly so that it can placate Tel Aviv and turn its geopolitical attentions to more pressing matters elsewhere.