Indirect Channels: Analyzing US-Iran Talks in Oman


As per recent reports,  Oman mediated indirect talks between the United States and Iran earlier this year as a part of the efforts to de-escalate regional tensions, which is an important and consistent feature of its foreign policy. The indirect talks took place amid escalating tensions in the Red Sea as the Houthis continued targeting ships passing through the Bab al-Mandab Strait. The primary motive for the United States was to persuade Iran to curb Houthi attacks in the region. However, Iran stated that achieving this would be impossible without a ceasefire in effect in Gaza. The previous indirect negotiations facilitated by Oman between Iran and the United States yielded some positive outcomes, and the current discussions can be seen as a continuation of those efforts.

Brett McGurk, the White House’s Middle East adviser, along with Abram Paley, the US envoy for Iran, led the US delegation, while Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator, represented Iran. As per reports, the United States urged Iran to restrain attacks by the Houthis, address clarifications about its nuclear program and cease support for militias targeting US forces. Apart from the attacks by the Houthis in the Red Sea, which have become an imminent security concern, earlier this year, Iran also seized an oil tanker linked to the United States, further increasing the risks for the United States in the region. The West accuses Iran of arming and providing intelligence to the Houthis, but Iran denies this, arguing it maintains a “spiritual influence” rather than direct control over the group. As per reports, the Iranians  relied on the same position in the previous talks.

Iran’s denial of control over its proxies serves as a strategic maneuver to wield influence and leverage during negotiations with the United States, with the ultimate aim of asserting its dominance amid a perceived decline in US credibility. Iran acknowledges that despite not directly orchestrating the attacks, it can rally support using the attacks by proxies. It is important to note that the larger converging agenda for Iranian proxies is to challenge the United States despite each group’s varying levels of autonomy. Several reports have revealed Iran’s supply of weapons to its proxy groups across the region, including the Houthis. Iranian proxies project themselves as a credible resistance force to oust US forces from the region. Since October 7th, Iranian proxies have conducted over 170 attacks on US forces in Iraq and Syria, heightening tensions and prompting retaliatory strikes by the Biden administration.

Iran recognizes the pressure on the Biden administration, particularly with the upcoming elections. Anticipating a potentially harsher response from the United States if the Republicans gain power, Iran seeks to be in a better negotiating position and assess Washington’s reactions in the meantime. This is especially significant as public opinion regarding the Biden administration’s handling of the war in Gaza has not garnered approval ratings in various polls. The indirect talks with the United States also enable Iran to keep open the prospects for any “unfreezing” deals and possible sanctions waiver deals. However, any extension of sanctions waivers for Iran by the Biden administration would face strong criticism and challenge from the Republicans, especially as the government continues to face bipartisan pressure to take stronger measures against Iran.

For the Biden administration, indirect negotiations with Tehran could potentially reduce the scope for sporadic attacks and mitigate the risk of the war in Gaza spreading in the region. The United States aims to utilize indirect channels to inform Iran about the risks of its involvement and the potential responses it may face, seeking to establish a deterrent and communicate effectively to prevent misunderstandings. This approach is crucial for the Biden administration, prioritizing deterrence and conflict prevention amidst domestic pressure. Iran acknowledges and strategically responds to this dynamic by intervening as and when necessary to avoid any direct conflict with the United States, as seen in the swift intervention by Iran in the aftermath of the attacks in Jordan against US forces. While the Biden administration wants to minimize any involvement in direct military engagement, Iran navigates the situation carefully, balancing its own interests and avoiding direct actions that could escalate tensions further.

Concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program remain significant despite the current focus on Gaza, with Iran’s unresolved issues with the IAEA persisting. The United States has, in recent months, refrained from a harsher response on this matter, fearing it could hinder efforts to de-escalate tensions in the region. Rafael Mariano Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) highlighted Iran’s lack of transparency regarding its nuclear program at the World Government Summit in Dubai. Despite Iran’s assurances, concerns persist over undeclared nuclear materials and failure to provide design information for new nuclear facilities. Grossi also spoke about Iran’s potential nuclear weapons capability, emphasizing the need for transparency and diplomacy to mitigate tensions. As per reports, the United States had raised these concerns with Iran during the indirect talks.

The United States wants to reduce tensions as the regional situation becomes increasingly complex. Both the United States and Iran are inclined to steer clear of direct confrontation. The top priority for the United States is restoring security in the Red Sea, demonstrated by leading a multinational force against the Houthis and coordinating strikes with the UK in Yemen. The subsequent indirect talks underscore the continued importance for the United States to enhance security in the region through both diplomatic and, if necessary, military interventions.

Editorial Team