Secret Talks Re-Open Channel Between U.S. And Iran

American and Iranian officials secretly met in Oman last month to discuss an informal agreement which would return Americans held in Iranian custody and limits on the Iranian nuclear program. The talks represent this first dialogue between the nations after months of Iran refusing contact. Among the proposals discussed was the release of three American citizens long held by the Iranian regime and limiting enrichment of nuclear material to 60% in exchange for a relaxation of western sanctions, including the return of $7 billion frozen in South Korean banks.

Both sides have hinted at progress while being clear to demarcate these talks from the formal agreements of the past that necesitate approval from the U.S. congress. “Call it whatever you want, whether a temporary deal, an interim deal or a mutual understanding – both sides want to prevent further escalation” an anonymous Iranian official told Reuters. State Department spokesperson Matt Miller called for even more caution from outside observers, saying that “Rumors about a nuclear deal interim or otherwise are false and misleading”, though adding that “we have at all times believed that diplomacy is the best path forward”. 

While the merit of any potential agreement will doubtlessly be hotly debated, the talks bring much needed dialogue to a relationship which has proven to escalate when channels for conversation are absent. Such a dialogue channel is also becoming increasingly necessary to avoid an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites. With Israel increasingly signaling that an attack is upcoming if the Iranian nuclear program continues to develop towards weapons-grade enrichment, the relationship established at last month’s meeting may enable the U.S. to take on an intermediary role if such an attack were to take place. 

Such tepid statements from the US are no doubt partly due to domestic political pressures that will become only more predominant as the American election season comes into full swing. The deal reached between the Iranian regime and the Obama administration in 2015 faced rapid disapproval from congressional Republicans, forcing the deal to never be ratified, and enabling the eventual American exit of the deal under the Trump administration. These political dynamics are no doubt going to limit the time, extent, or even possibility of agreement to an unofficial deal. 

However, while these talks may yield limited overt outcomes, the channels for communication, this resetting of relations may prove crucial if the already unfriendly relations threaten to turn toward conflict, be that by the U.S. or Israel. Luckily, the current administration is orientated towards keeping relations stable and communication frequent. As the conflict in Ukraine continues to necessitate considerable international and domestic support, a top priority of the Biden administration is to keep attention and resources away from the region and in Ukraine. Keeping public attention low and substantive deconfliction conversations high allows the best of both worlds: creating a more stable relationship while maintaining the wish to prevent conflict.