US outlines steps for Iran to defuse tension but denies a deal is in the works

News reports say Washington and Tehran are close to reaching an agreement on prisoners and nuclear programme

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fires a missile during training exercises in 2021. AFP
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The State Department on Thursday outlined steps Iran should take to reduce tension with the US, but pushed back against news reports that Washington is edging closer to a deal with Tehran to free prisoners and resume talks on a nuclear agreement.

Iran on Monday confirmed that it had held indirect talks with US officials in Oman to discuss a potential prisoner swap.

The development represents an apparent breakthrough after months without meaningful dialogue between the two countries, even as Tehran has moved to build a stockpile of increasingly refined uranium that could ultimately be used in a nuclear bomb.

The New York Times on Thursday cited Israeli, Iranian and US officials in outlining a prospective informal pact that would lead to Iran agreeing not to enrich uranium beyond 60 per cent purity – less than the 90 per cent required to make a bomb.

In return for sanctions relief, Iran would also stop attacks on US contractors in Syria and Iraq, as well as reduce support to the Russian military, the newspaper reported.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said such reports were “not true”, and both Iran and the US have sought to refute earlier reports. But he outlined a series of measures Iran should enact to improve relations.

“We want Iran to take steps to de-escalate tensions, which, of course, includes steps to curb its nuclear programme,” Mr Miller told reporters.

He described other steps Tehran should take, including ending support for proxy groups that attack US contractors and partners, as well as stopping support for Russia's war in Ukraine and releasing prisoners.

Currently, three Iranian-American dual citizens are being held in Iran's prisons: Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz.

“Iran should release Americans who it continues to wrongfully detain,” Mr Miller said. “The wrongful detention of US nationals for political leverage is unacceptable and we will continue to work to bring every American who was wrongfully detained home.”

He said the US would continue to use “diplomatic engagements” to achieve such goals.

House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Michael McCaul sent a letter to US President Joe Biden saying he was concerned by reports of a possible new nuclear deal with Iran.

“Rather than using United States diplomatic leverage and military deterrence to dissuade Iran from engaging in these malign activities, this administration is rewarding Iran’s bad behaviour in exchange for a false promise of de-escalation,” wrote the Republican chairman.

“US law requires that any agreement, arrangement or understanding with Iran needs to be submitted to Congress”.

In 2018, Donald Trump, who was president at the time, unilaterally exited a comprehensive nuclear deal that the US and other countries had forged with Iran in 2015.

Under the deal, Tehran agreed to inspections of its nuclear facilities and to curtail its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief and other measures. Since the US pulled out, Iran has increased its uranium-enriching activity.

Tehran is now seeking sanctions relief in any agreement with the US, but that could be a difficult sell in Washington, said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the International Crisis Group.

He said a prospective new agreement does not necessarily mean it would be possible to fully roll back Iran’s nuclear programme.

“Because all of that requires substantive sanctions relief, that, I think is unsellable politically in Washington at this time,” he told The National.

Any new agreement with Iran would likely face stiff opposition from sceptical members of Congress.

Senior Democratic aides in the Senate last week told The National that Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Menendez plans to introduce a companion to a House bill on Iranian ballistic missiles and would be “looking at ways to reintroduce the Stop Iranian Drones Act”, which aims to expand existing provisions requiring sanctions against people or entities that provide certain types of weapons to Tehran.

Mr McCaul said recent US intelligence claiming that Iran is helping Russia build a drone factory highlighted the importance of his bipartisan Fight Crime Act, which would impose sanctions on anyone “supplying, transferring or developing Iranian missiles and drones”.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a Washington think tank with hawkish views on Iran, said the Biden administration was unrealistic if it thought any deal would change Tehran's behaviour.

A deal would be a “Faustian bargain”, he said, in which Iran would be rewarded for taking US prisoners.

“You hear this called a gentleman's understanding, but there is no such thing when you're dealing with [Iran],” he said.

The Biden administration wants only to “make a claim about how they changed Iran's nuclear direction come the 2024 election”, he said.

Jihan Abdalla and Ellie Sennett contributed to this report

Updated: June 16, 2023, 4:34 AM