A US official confirmed that Washington was in contact with Iran regarding moribund nuclear deal talks late Monday, but denied that discussions on an interim agreement were taking place.
The comments, reported by Reuters, came hours after Iran appeared to acknowledge reports that talks were taking place, with the country’s Foreign Ministry thanking Oman for its role as mediator between the rivals.
The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington had communicated with Iran to warn it regarding what measures could be met with belligerence or conversely, help facilitate more productive negotiations.
“There are no talks about an interim deal,” the US official said.
“We have made clear to them what escalatory steps they needed to avoid to prevent a crisis and what de-escalatory steps they could take to create a more positive context,” he added.
In recent weeks, Israeli officials have accused the US and Iran of using the indirect talks to seek an interim nuclear agreement that would allow Tehran to continue enriching uranium. A recent report by a Tel Aviv-based journalist in the US publication Axios which exposed the indirect talks had also repeated the Israeli claims.
However, on Tuesday the Haaretz daily quoted a senior Israeli official as saying that Jerusalem was concerned that Washington planned to reach understandings with Tehran, but not formalize them into an agreement, in part so they would not have to bring it to Congress for a vote.
Biden administration officials denied this, telling Haaretz that “the president rose through Congress and works with Congress more than most presidents. The idea that he would try to bypass it is not really indicative of the behavior of the administration.”
The comment marks the first time the US has confirmed communicating with Iran since indirect talks on a new deal fell apart nearly a year ago. Last week, the White House denied making progress on a new nuclear deal, but did not comment on whether or not talks were place.
The US official declined to detail what steps Iran had been told to avoid or encourage, but indicated that Washington was seeking greater cooperation between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency watchdog.
On Friday, Axios reported that last month US officials made clear in messages passed to Iran that there would be a severe response if Tehran reached the 90 percent uranium enrichment levels required for use in a nuclear weapon — a short technical step from the current level.
The most recent estimate by the International Atomic Energy Agency is that Iran has 114.1 kilograms (251 pounds) of uranium enriched to 60% purity — a level for which nonproliferation experts already say Tehran has no civilian use.
On Sunday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed support for an agreement on the country’s nuclear program with the West, but added that “the existing infrastructure of the nuclear industry should not be touched.”
He claimed that the international community was powerless to keep Iran from a nuclear weapon if it sought one, but also urged cooperation with the IAEA while warning against succumbing to “bullying” based on “unfounded claims.”
Iran insists that its nuclear program is for civilian use only and it is not seeking nuclear weapons capaibilities.
On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said Tehran was not interested in an interim agreement with Washington, but would consider a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, which had offered sanctions relief for enrichment curbs before the US pulled out in 2018.
“We consider the other things that are said as media speculations. We would not confirm anything as negotiation for an interim deal,” he said.
A return to the deal was only one of the issues being discussed, he added.
Israel is concerned that a new deal could legitimize Iran’s nuclear activity and erase international support for military action.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lobbied hard against the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, which the US pulled out of in 2018. Subsequent efforts by Europe and US President Joe Biden’s administration to revive the agreement and bring Washington back into the pact have also been met with protests from Jerusalem.
Israel argues that diplomatic efforts fall short of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, pushing instead for a credible military threat.