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Source: FT

Mar 14, 2024

US held secret talks with Iran over Red Sea attacks

Indirect negotiations in Oman aimed to end strikes against shipping by Tehran-backed Houthis

Felicia Schwartz in Washington and Andrew England in London

The US has held secret talks with Iran this year in a bid to convince Tehran to use its influence over Yemen’s Houthi movement to end attacks on ships in the Red Sea, according to US and Iranian officials. The indirect negotiations, during which Washington also raised concerns about Iran’s expanding nuclear programme, took place in Oman in January and were the first between the foes in 10 months, the officials said.

The US delegation was led by the White House’s Middle East adviser Brett McGurk and its Iran envoy Abram Paley. Iranian deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani, who is also Tehran’s top nuclear negotiator, represented the Islamic republic. Omani officials shuttled between the Iranian and American representatives so they did not speak directly, the officials said.

The talks underline how the Biden administration is using diplomatic channels with its foe, alongside military deterrents, in a bid to de-escalate a wave of regional hostilities involving Iranian-backed militant groups that was triggered by the Israel-Hamas war. US officials see an indirect channel with Iran as “a method for raising the full range of threats emanating from Iran”, a person familiar with the matter said. That included conveying “what they need to do in order to prevent a wider conflict, as they claim to want”.

 US Middle East adviser Brett McGurk, left, and Iran’s deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani © FT Montage/AFP/Getty

A second round of negotiations involving McGurk was scheduled for February, but was postponed when he became tied up with US efforts to broker an agreement between Israel and Hamas to halt the war in Gaza and secure the release of Israeli hostages held in the strip, the US officials added.

“We have many channels for passing messages to Iran,” a US state department spokesperson said. They declined to provide details “other than to say that, since October 7, all of them have been focused on raising the full range of threats emanating from Iran, and the need for Iran to cease its across-the-board escalation”.

The last known talks between US and Iran were also so-called proximity talks last May. Since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel triggered the war, Iran-backed Hizbollah, the Lebanese militant movement, has traded daily cross-border fire with Israel; the Houthis have attacked dozens of ships, including merchant shipping and US naval vessels; and Iranian-aligned Iraqi militias have launched scores of missiles and drones against American forces in Iraq and Syria.

 A Houthi supporter holds up a mock drone in front of a banner of the group’s leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi during a protest against the US and Israel and in support of Palestinians, in Sana’a, Yemen, earlier this month © Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

US officials have repeatedly accused Tehran of supplying the Houthis with drones, missiles and intelligence to conduct their attacks on shipping. Iran acknowledges its political support for the Houthis, who control northern Yemen and have justified their attacks as support for the Palestinians. However, Tehran insists the rebels act independently.

“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. There have, however, been signs that Tehran has sought to ease tensions with Washington since a drone attack on a US military base on the Jordanian-Syrian border killed three American troops.

After US President Joe Biden vowed to hold accountable those behind the attack, Iran withdrew senior commanders of its elite Revolutionary Guards from Syria. Days later, on February 2, American forces carried out a wave of attacks against Iranian-affiliated forces in Syria and Iraq. No attacks have been launched against American bases in Iraq and Syria since February 4, with US officials saying there have been indications that Tehran has worked to rein in the Iraqi militias.

The Iranian official said that when Brigadier-General Esmail Ghaani, commander of the Qods force, the wing of the guards responsible for overseas operations, visited Baghdad last month he told the Iraqi militias to “manage their behaviour in a way that will not allow America to engage Iran”. While Iran’s ultimate goal is to drive American forces out of Iraq and Syria, Tehran has made clear it wants to avoid a direct conflict with the US or Israel, and to avoid a full-blown regional war.

The Houthis, however, have continued to attack shipping, despite multiple strikes by the US and the UK against their military facilities. The group has launched 99 attacks in the Red Sea and surrounding waters — affecting 15 commercial ships, including four American vessels — since October. US officials acknowledge that military action alone will not be enough to deter the Houthis, and believe that ultimately Tehran will need to pressure the group to curb its activities.

Although the Houthis are less ideologically close to Tehran than other militant groups, the relationship has deepened as the movement has become an increasingly important member of the “axis of resistance” backed by Iran. Western powers are also concerned about Iran’s nuclear programme as Tehran continues to enrich uranium at levels close to weapons grade.

 That had been a focus of the Biden administration before October 7 as it sought to contain the crisis triggered by former president Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal that Iran signed with world powers. In September, Tehran and Washington agreed to a prisoner swap, and the US unfroze $6bn of Iran’s oil money, which had been stuck in South Korea.

The funds were transferred to an account in Qatar, where their use would be monitored. Alongside that deal, the Biden administration was seeking to agree unwritten de-escalation measures with Tehran, including a cap on its uranium enrichment. But the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war dashed hopes of progress, and Iran has not been able to access the $6bn transferred to Qatar.

The US has not frozen the funds, but the process of identifying which foreign companies are cleared to trade humanitarian goods with the republic using the money has stalled, frustrating Tehran, which is facing mounting economic pressures. After the FT broke the news of the talks, Iran’s IRNA state news agency quoted an “informed source” as saying the discussions were limited to the lifting of US sanctions on Tehran. 

“The removal of oppressive sanctions has always been on the priority agenda of the Iranian side,” the agency quoted the person as saying. “The Islamic republic of Iran has continued in this field.”

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