Donald Trump holds talks with Swiss president on possible Iran back-channel negotiations

The US has already dispatched additional forces to the Gulf to counter Iran

President Donald Trump welcomes Switzerland's Federal President Ueli Maurer to the White House, Thursday, May 16, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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Proposals for backchannel talks between the United States and Iran gained momentum on Thursday as President Donald Trump hosted his Swiss counterpart Ueli Maurer ,while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Sultan of Oman Qaboos bin Said Al Said.

Asked if the US was going to war with Iran while receiving Mr Maurer, Mr Trump said: “Hope not.”

The visit was a surprise, and followed a CNN report last week that the White House passed through the Swiss confederation a phone number for the Iranian leadership to call Mr Trump.

“I would like to see them call me,” the US president had said before tweeting late on Wednesday that Iran “will want to talk soon.”

The Swiss have acted as the official protector of US interests in Iran since the relations broke off between Washington and Tehran in 1980, and has at different stages helped in mediation efforts between the two.

In parallel to Mr Trump’s efforts, his Secretary of State – who started the secret channel with North Korea in 2017 – held a phone conversation with the Sultan of Oman on Thursday.

The State Department said that along with the situation in Yemen, the two discussed “Iranian threats to the Gulf region more broadly.”

In 2011, Oman hosted US officials and directed back-channel talks between the Obama administration and Iran, which culminated in the nuclear deal in 2015.

Randa Slim, the director of track two dialogue at the Middle East Institute, said the prisoners issue could be a starting point for secret negotiations between US and Iran if they were to happen.

"The entry point to talks will likely be both sides agreeing on exchange of prisoners," Ms Slim told The National.

Last month, speaking from New York, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said: "I put this offer on the table publicly now. [let’s] exchange them,” referring to at least five Americans detained in Iran and a number of Iranians jailed in the US for violating sanctions.

But Ms Slim did not expect these negotiations to go beyond the prisoners’ issue at this stage. She argued that Iranian officials “don’t see that Mr Trump has the intellectual bandwidth necessary to structure such a larger deal” and that some of his more hawkish advisers will try to scuttle such efforts.

Instead, Tehran is likely to wait until November 2020 “to see if Mr Trump will be re-elected, before they take his offer for talks seriously,” Ms Slim said.

Daniel Serwer, the director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, also argued that Mr Trump wants to talk to Iran.

“Donald Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo have made themselves clear for months: they want Tehran back at the negotiating table…National Security Adviser Bolton prefers war, but he has lost that debate on North Korea and Venezuela… He is likely to lose again,” Mr Serwer wrote.

He raised the possibility of secret talks in the interim before larger public negotiations can take place. In such a context, Iran could seek to alleviate some of the sanctions, while releasing US hostages is a priority for the White House.

Meanwhile, BBC Arabic reported this week that during his trip to Baghdad, Mr Pompeo passed a message to Iran via Iraqi officials “to come to the table”, an Iraqi official told the station.

The administration was also due to brief Congress in closed meetings on Thursday about the increasing threat from Iran in the region and possible plots to target Americans interests.

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that US Defence officials are considering whether they will field additional weaponry or personnel to the Gulf region "to strengthen their deterrent against possible action by Iran or proxy groups, but that they hope additional deployments will prevent rather than fuel attacks."

The US has already dispatched two warships, B-52 bombers and F-35 jets to the Gulf of Oman region.