May 30, 2023 - World

Biden adviser discussed possible outreach to Iran on nuclear program with Oman: sources

The flag of Iran is seen in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna. Photo: Michael Gruber/Getty Images

The flag of Iran is seen in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna. Photo: Michael Gruber/Getty Images

Brett McGurk, President Biden’s senior Middle East adviser, took a low-profile trip to Oman earlier this month for talks with Omani officials on possible diplomatic outreach to Iran regarding its nuclear program, according to five U.S., Israeli and European officials.

Why it matters: The Biden administration has said it is extremely concerned about the advances in Iran's nuclear program and the risk of it leading to a regional military escalation.

  • Axios reported in April that the Biden administration discussed with its European and Israeli partners a possible proposal for an interim agreement with Iran that would include some sanctions relief in exchange for Tehran freezing parts of its nuclear program.

Behind the scenes: McGurk traveled to Muscat on May 8 after a trip to Saudi Arabia with national security adviser Jake Sullivan and a visit to Israel to brief Prime Minister Netanyahu about the U.S. talks in Riyadh, four Israeli and U.S. officials said.

  • The Muscat visit wasn’t made public by either the U.S. or Oman. The officials said the main issue that was discussed was a new diplomatic push over Iran’s nuclear program with Omani mediation.
  • “The Omanis are holding proximity talks between the U.S. and Iran," a senior Israeli official told Axios using diplomatic jargon for negotiations done through an agreed upon third party without a face-to-face meeting.

Three senior Israeli officials claimed the White House is exploring through the Omani government whether the Iranians are open to taking steps that would put some limits on their nuclear program and de-escalate the regional situation and what they would want in return.

  • “The Americans want a time out," one of the senior Israeli officials told Axios.
  • A White House National Security Council spokesperson pushed back on the Israeli officials’ claims. “There is no U.S. discussion of an interim deal and no discussion of sanctions relief, or closing safeguards cases," the spokesperson said.
  • A senior European diplomat said that the "U.S. is working with the Omanis on the Iranian issue."
  • The White House NSC spokesperson said they won’t comment on regional diplomacy "of which Iran is one aspect."

The Israeli government is concerned about a possible push by the Biden administration for a “freeze for freeze” interim agreement with Iran, three Israeli officials told Axios.

  • Israeli Minister for strategic affairs Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi are expected to discuss these concerns during their visit to the White House on Thursday, as Axios previously reported.
  • The Omani and Iranian foreign ministries did not respond to requests for comment.

Between the lines: The Korea Economic Daily reported on Tuesday that South Korea and the U.S. are discussing ways to release $7 billion in Iranian funds held in South Korea. The funds are a South Korean debt for oil imports from Iran.

  • Such unfreezing of funds has been floated by the Iranian press several times in the last year as a possible step in the context of a deal between the U.S. and Iran either on the nuclear issue or as part of a prisoner swap.

The big picture: Several Iranian media outlets reported on Tuesday that Iran has reached an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on closing an investigation over the Marivan undeclared nuclear site near Abadeh, south of the city of Isfahan.

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exposed the site at a press conference in September 2019 and claimed it was part of Iran’s undeclared nuclear weapons program.
  • Satellite images of the site that showed Iran had conducted several rounds of demolition activity in the area between July 2019 and December 2020 fueled suspicions that Tehran was attempting to hide its nuclear work there.
  • Since the end of 2019, the IAEA has been investigating the issue, with visits by UN inspectors to the site.

The IAEA didn’t comment on the Iranian press reports.

  • The agency is expected to issue quarterly reports ahead of a board meeting scheduled next week.
  • The State Department said it "cannot comment on what the IAEA may put out before it does so."
  • "We have full confidence in the IAEA and in Director General Grossi, and we look forward to the IAEA’s reports in the coming days," a State Department spokesperson added.

According to the Iranian press reports, the IAEA also decided to close the investigation around a recent incident in which UN inspectors discovered Iranian scientists enriched a small quantity of uranium to the level of 83.7% — the closest to the 90% level needed for nuclear weapons.

  • As part of an agreement with the IAEA, Iran agreed to re-install a number of IAEA cameras at a nuclear facility in Isfahan. The cameras were removed last June after the IAEA voted in favor of a resolution criticizing Iran.
Go deeper