Iran reportedly pushed US to broker Gaza ceasefire during secret talks in Oman

NYT reports that US in turn asked for Tehran to halt attacks by its proxies in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, which Iranian officials claim they can’t do unless fighting ends in Gaza

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, left, meets with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Doha, Qatar, Oct. 14, 2023. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, left, meets with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in Doha, Qatar, Oct. 14, 2023. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)

During recent indirect talks, Iran asked the Biden administration to bring about a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war while the US pressed Tehran to curb attacks by its proxies, according to a New York Times report published Friday.

The report offered further details on the January meeting in Oman between the Biden administration’s Middle East czar Brett McGurk and special envoy on Iran Abram Paley, and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, which was first reported by The Financial Times.

In addition to asking Iran to rein in attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels and expressing concerns about its nuclear program, The New York Times said the American officials called for Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria to stop targeting US forces.

Citing US and Iranian officials, the report said Kani in turn relayed an Iranian request for the US to broker a ceasefire in Gaza, without specifying whether this meant a temporary truce or a permanent end to the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Iran is a key sponsor of the Gaza-ruling Palestinian terror group, and its leaders praised the October 7 onslaught that triggered the ongoing war.

Two Iranian officials were quoted saying that the Islamic Republic continued to deny it controls the activities of its proxies, in particular the Houthis, but said it could influence them to bring attacks to a complete stop only after a ceasefire is reached.

Though no agreement was reached, US and Iranian officials said they have continued to exchange messages via Oman about the proxies and a ceasefire.

An unnamed senior US official told the Times that the administration chose to take part in the talks to show it’s still open to diplomacy with dialogue despite the heightened regional tensions. American officials said Iran initiated the meeting and that Oman strongly urged the US to send representatives.

US National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk speaks during the IISS Manama Dialogue security conference, in Manama on November 18, 2023. (Mazen Mahdi / AFP)

The meeting two months ago in Muscat, which was mediated by Omani officials who shuttled between the sides, was the first such engagement between the US and Iran since the since-stalled “proximity talks” on Tehran’s nuclear program in May, which were also held in Oman.

A round of talks scheduled for February was delayed as McGurk redirected his focus on efforts to secure a temporary truce and hostage release deal between Israel and Hamas. A second deal with Hamas remains elusive over three months after the last temporary truce with the terror group in late November, in which 105 hostages of the 253 taken during the October 7 massacre were released.

The indirect diplomatic channel with Tehran is seen by the White House as “a method for raising the full range of threats emanating from Iran,” a person familiar with the talks told The Financial Times, adding that the medium allowed the US to convey to Iran how to prevent a broader conflict in the region, “as they claim to want.”

“Iran has repeatedly said it only has a form of spiritual influence [over the rebels]. They can’t dictate to the Houthis, but they can negotiate and talk,” an Iranian official said.

In solidarity with Hamas, the Houthis — part of the regional Tehran-aligned “axis of resistance” against the United States, Israel and their allies — launched missile attacks on Israel and began targeting commercial vessels in the Red Sea, declaring that Israeli vessels were legitimate targets.

But they have frequently targeted vessels with no clear links to Israel, imperiling shipping in a key route for global trade and energy shipments when supply strains are already putting upward pressure on inflation globally.

Armed Yemeni civil servants step on an Israeli flag as they take part in a parade following 12 days of military training in the Houthi-run capital Sanaa on March 9, 2024 (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

The attacks have escalated despite a US-led multinational response that has included strikes and interceptions to defend vessels in the Red Sea. The United States and Britain have launched strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen and redesignated the militia as a terrorist group.

Contrary to Iran’s claims that the Houthis act independently, the Biden administration has accused Tehran of being “deeply involved” in the planning of their attacks and the supply of weapons.

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