US reportedly looking to Oman to broker new Iran nuclear talks

Washington said to rebuff Israeli officials’ concern it is seeking a ‘time-out’ with Tehran that could keep some enrichment activity intact

File: Oman's Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr bin Hamad bin Hamood Albusaidi (R) meets with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in Muscat, on April, 25, 2023. (AFP)
File: Oman's Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr bin Hamad bin Hamood Albusaidi (R) meets with his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, in Muscat, on April, 25, 2023. (AFP)

US officials have made contact with Omani counterparts to explore the possibility of reviving mediated nuclear talks between Washington and Tehran, with Israeli officials accusing them of seeking an interim agreement that would allow Iran to continue enriching uranium, according to a report Tuesday.

The report in Axios came some nine months after indirect talks aimed at reenergizing the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers collapsed, with the US saying the negotiations were no longer a top priority.

But on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden’s top official on Iran indicated that the US was looking to try again for a diplomatic solution to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, which Israel alleges constitutes an existential military threat.

“We hope that we can resolve this through diplomatic means, and we’re prepared to go down that path,” Robert Malley told National Public Radio.

According to Axios, which cited US, Israeli and European officials, Biden’s special envoy to the Middle East Brett McGurk made a secret visit to Muscat, Oman, in early May while in the region for public trips to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The “US is working with the Omanis on the Iranian issue,” a European diplomat was quoted as saying.

Robert Malley, Biden administration special envoy for Iran, testifies about the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations on Capitol Hill May 25, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

Israeli officials quoted by the outlet expressed concerns that Washington was exploring talks for an interim agreement aimed at reducing regional tensions but that could leave some nuclear enrichment activity intact.

“The Americans want a time-out,” an Israeli official told Axios.

The US has repeatedly denied pursuing such a pact.

“There is no US discussion of an interim deal and no discussion of sanctions relief, or closing safeguards cases,” a spokesperson for the US National Security Council was quoted as saying.

There have been signs of late of burgeoning diplomatic activity surrounding Oman, which played a key role in jumpstarting the talks that eventually led to the 2015 deal with Iran, which the US pulled out of in 2018.

On Sunday, Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tarik landed in Tehran for a two-day jaunt, the first by an Omani leader to the Iranian capital in a decade. The visit came as Iran worked to shed many of the regional rivalries that characterized the past decade, restoring ties with Saudi Arabia and others and expressing support for full diplomatic relations with Egypt for the first time since 1979.

Axios reported that concerns over a possible interim agreement will be on the table when National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer visit Washington this week.

But Hanegbi, speaking to Army Radio Tuesday, said he knew of no new deal brewing and predicted the Americans would not forge a fresh agreement with Tehran.

“There won’t be a new deal because the Americans are insisting that it be improved — longer and stronger,” he said.

From left to right: Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2023. (Antony Blinken/Twitter)

Last week, IDF chief Herzi Halevi warned that Israel could take military action against Iran, citing recent “developments.”

“Iran has made more progress in uranium enrichment than ever before. We are also closely examining other aspects of the [Iranians’] path to nuclear capability,” he said at a conference. “Without going into details, there are possible negative developments on the horizon that could prompt action.”

In February, Iran admitted that it had enriched uranium to nearly 84 percent purity, just a small step away from weapons-grade material. But on Tuesday, the country’s state-run news agency claimed inspectors from the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency had ended a probe into the enrichment activity, and an investigation into a site where traces of nuclear work were found, ahead of a scheduled quarterly report by the UN watchdog.

Disagreements with the IAEA over its inspections had been reported as one of the issues that sank nuclear talks as they reached the finish line in August. Malley told NPR that Iran had “turned its back on a very realistic deal.”

He also warned that “all options remain on the table,” a nod to Israel’s push for a credible military threat to backstop diplomatic efforts.

“But we will also pursue diplomacy, because we think that’s the most verifiable and sustainable way to prevent them from getting a bomb,” Malley said.

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