US warned Iran against higher enrichment during indirect Oman talks in May — report

Axios reports US Mideast coordinator Brett McGurk and Iran’s top nuke negotiator Ali Bagheri Kan were in Gulf nation at same time, with Muscat officials shuttling between sides

This photo released November 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in Natanz uranium enrichment facility near Natanz, Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)
This photo released November 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in Natanz uranium enrichment facility near Natanz, Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

Officials from the United States and Iran held indirect talks in Oman last month, with officials from Muscat acting as intermediaries, according to a Friday report.

Three sources familiar with the matter told Axios that US officials made clear in messages passed to Iran that there will be a severe response if Tehran reaches the 90 percent uranium enrichment levels required for use in a nuclear weapon — a short technical step from their current level. The most recent estimate by the UN’s nuclear watchdog is that Iran has 114.1 kilograms (251 pounds) of uranium enriched up to 60% purity, a short technical step from weapons-grade.

The Axios report labeled the discussions “proximity talks” focused on deterrence, and said that the White House’s Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk had traveled to Oman on May 8 to discuss potential moves by the US toward Iran regarding its contentious nuclear program.

The visit was apparently while McGurk was in the region for public trips to Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The report said Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kan was in Oman at the same time as part of a delegation, but did not meet directly with the Americans.

The two teams were in separate locations and Omani officials shuttled between them, according to the report.

Brett McGurk, US White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, speaks during the 17th IISS Manama Dialogue in the Bahraini capital Manama on November 21, 2021. (Mazen Mahdi/AFP)

When asked for comment by Axios, a White House National Security Council spokesperson said Washington “remain[s] focused on constraining Iran’s destabilizing behavior through pressure, close coordination with our allies, and de-escalation in the region.

“That includes ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon so of course, we are watching closely Iran’s enrichment activities,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said that if necessary, the US was ready “to take action in full coordination with our partners and allies to ensure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.”

There was no comment from the Omani or Iranian foreign ministries.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani waves as he leaves after talks at the Coburg Palais, the venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna on August 4, 2022. (Alex Halada/AFP)

Last week, the Financial Times reported that the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, recently held a number of meetings with the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Amir Saeid Iravani.

These were believed to be the first direct interaction between American and Iranian officials since then-US president Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal.

The Financial Times described the outreach as part of a shift among US and European officials, who are concerned Iran’s continually expanding activities in violation of the nuclear deal could trigger a regional conflict.

The reported discussions 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.

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.

Last month, Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tarik went to Tehran for a two-day visit, 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.

Israeli officials have accused the US and Iran of seeking an interim nuclear agreement that would allow Tehran to continue enriching uranium.

The White House on Thursday denied a report that Washington and Tehran were making progress on a new nuclear deal, a potential development Israel has been watching closely and with mounting concern in recent weeks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday at length about Iran, according to an Israeli readout of the conversation, which came after the top US diplomat was wrapping up a high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia to boost ties and talk about possible normalization with Israel.

Netanyahu reiterated his position that Iran will not stop advancing its nuclear program, even if it agrees to revive the nuclear deal with the US, his office says he told Blinken.

Separately on Thursday, Israeli F-16D fighter jets escorted two American B-1 bombers as they made their way through Israeli airspace returning from the Persian Gulf, in an apparent show of force toward Iran amid lingering tensions in the region.

Israeli F-16D fighter jets escort American B-1 bombers through Israeli airspace on June 8, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli jets escorting American bombers have become a regular fixture in the skies of the Middle East over the past two years, as tensions between Tehran and the West have risen amid stalled attempts to negotiate a new deal that would block the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear weapons in exchange for sanctions relief.

Israel 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.

Israel is concerned that a new deal could legitimize Iran’s nuclear activity and erase international support for military action.

Last week, the UN’s atomic watchdog closed an investigation into an Iranian site where secret nuclear activity was suspected, leading Israel to accuse the monitor of caving to pressure from Tehran.

The Associated Press reported that the IAEA said Iran had satisfied concerns over suspected secret nuclear activity at Marivan and the underground Fordo facility.

Iran had argued the uranium traces could have come from “laboratory instruments and equipment” used by miners at the site. The IAEA called the answer “a possible explanation.”

Analysts had repeatedly linked Marivan to Iran’s secret military nuclear program and accused Iran of conducting high-explosive tests there in the early 2000s. In 2019, Netanyahu exposed the site, claiming it was a secret nuclear facility.

A separate investigation into uranium particles found to be enriched to 83.7% at Iran’s underground Fordo facility, just a short step from weapons-grade material, was also closed by the IAEA, which accepted Tehran’s explanation that the fluctuations were caused by an enrichment byproduct.

This December 11, 2020, satellite photo by Maxar Technologies shows construction at Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

Last year, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said in no uncertain terms that closing IAEA investigations into nuclear particles found at suspected nuclear sites was a prerequisite to reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.

A second IAEA report last week found that Iran has significantly increased its stockpile of enriched uranium in recent months to more than 23 times the limit set out in the 2015 accord between Tehran and world powers.

Iran’s nuclear deal limited Tehran’s uranium stockpile to 300 kilograms (661 pounds) and enrichment to 3.67% — enough to fuel a nuclear power plant, but Iran has been producing uranium enriched to 60% purity — a level for which nonproliferation experts already say Tehran has no civilian use.

The IAEA report estimated that as of May 13, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was at 4,744.5 kilograms (10,460 pounds). Of that, 114.1 kilograms (251 pounds) was enriched up to 60% purity.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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