The “proximity talks,” which haven’t been previously reported, represent the first known indirect engagement between the US and Iran in this way in several months. They took place amid growing concerns in the White House about Iran’s nuclear advances.
White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk traveled to Oman secretly on May 8 for talks with Omani officials on possible diplomatic outreach to Iran regarding its nuclear program, as Axios reported last week.
According to the three sources briefed on the issue, an Iranian delegation also arrived in Oman at the same time. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani was part of the delegation, one of the sources said.
McGurk and the Iranian officials didn’t meet, according to the sources. The two sides were in separate locations with Omani officials going between them and passing messages.
According to the sources, one of the main messages from the US focused on deterrence.
The sources added that the US made it clear that Iran will pay a heavy price if it moves forward with 90% uranium enrichment — the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon.
Tehran has repeatedly stated that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, with Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even issuing religious edicts against the atom bomb and other weapons of mass destruction.
The aim of the indirect exchange of messages between the administration of President Joe Biden and Iran was to reach an “understanding” about ways to “de-escalate the Iranian nuclear program, Iran’s behavior in the region and its involvement in the war in Ukraine”, the sources stated.
Such an understanding and de-escalation in the region could be used later as a basis for future talks on a new nuclear agreement between the parties.
Iran and the United States have denied a media report that they were nearing an interim agreement under which Tehran would curb its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.
Iran has cautioned the United States that the window of opportunity for an agreement on reviving the nuclear deal will not remain open forever, urging Washington to adopt a constructive approach to salvage the accord.
Iran showed to the world the peaceful nature of its nuclear program by signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with six world states — namely the US, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China. But, Washington’s unilateral withdrawal in May 2018 and its subsequent re-imposition of sanctions against Tehran left the future of the deal in limbo.
Negotiations between the parties to the landmark agreement kicked off in Vienna in April 2021, with the intention of bringing the US back into the deal and putting an end to its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
The discussions, however, have been at a standstill since August 2022 due to Washington’s insistence on not lifting all of the anti-Iran sanctions and offering the necessary guarantees that it will not exit the agreement again.