US held indirect talks with Iran to rein in Houthi Red Sea attacks — report

Washington also brought up nuclear concerns during negotiations in Oman in January; February round postponed due to Gaza ceasefire efforts

Armed Yemeni civil servants step on a US 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)
Armed Yemeni civil servants step on a US 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 United States conducted secret, Oman-brokered talks with Iran in January to persuade Tehran to curb attacks by Yemen’s Houthis, backed by Iran, on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, according to a report Wednesday.

Delegations were led by the Biden administration’s Middle East czar Brett McGurk and their special envoy on Iran Abram Paley, and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani, unnamed US and Iranian officials told the Financial Times.

The two sides did not meet directly. Negotiations were mediated by Omani officials who shuttled between them. It was the first such engagement since the since-stalled“proximity talks” on Tehran’s nuclear program in May, which were also held in Oman.

The US and Iranian Officials told the outlet that the US delegation in Oman in January also raised concerns over the nuclear project, without elaborating.

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.

In solidarity with Hamas, the Houthi rebels — 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.

File: The Rubymar cargo ship sinking off the coast of Yemen after being hit in a Houthi missile attack, February 27, 2024. (AFP)

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.

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.

The Houthi rebels seized Yemen’s capital Sana’a in 2014 and now control large swaths of the country.

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 said, 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.

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.

File: This photograph provided by the Indian Navy shows US-owned ship Genco Picardy which came under attack from a bomb-carrying drone launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels in the Gulf of Aden, January 18, 2024. (Indian Navy via AP)

The Houthi attacks in waters leading to the Suez Canal, a chokepoint for about 10 percent of global trade, have forced many shipping companies to divert their vessels.

Companies have ordered their ships to hold in place and not enter the Bab el-Mandeb Strait at the southern end of the Red Sea until the security situation can be addressed.

Houthis have also launched missiles and drones at southern Israel, which were intercepted by air defense systems.

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