March 19, 2024

IntelBrief: Iran and U.S. Messaging to Avoid Direct Conflict

AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Through both actions and indirect talks, the United States and Iran have signaled that they want to avoid direct conflict.
  • The Sultanate of Oman is a critical mediator between Tehran and Washington, hosting indirect U.S.-Iran meetings and holding Iranian assets freed up by U.S. sanctions waivers.
  • To avoid war with the United States, Iran has sought to restrain its allies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria but has been unable to prevail on the Houthis to cease attacking commercial ships in the Red Sea.
  • Iran’s reduction of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium signals Iran does not want nuclear issues to add to the already high tensions related to the Israel-Hamas war.

Press reports, along with actions taken by both sides, suggest that Washington and Tehran are working actively and consistently to prevent the expansion of the Israel-Hamas war from evolving into direct military conflict between them. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has always sought to avoid war on Iranian soil, acting instead to empower a region-wide network of allies that can act against the United States, its interests and allies, and Israel while allowing Iran a measure of deniability. All of Iran’s allies, including Lebanese Hezbollah, militia groups in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthi movement in Yemen, have acted to try to end Israel’s offensive in Gaza and enable the group – which has also been a close ally of Tehran – to survive politically and militarily. Israel and the United States have conducted retaliatory attacks against all of Iran’s allies to try to keep the Israel-Hamas war confined to the Gaza Strip. The U.S. willingness to retaliate and to escalate further if necessary appears to have convinced Iranian leaders that harder-line voices in Washington, many of whom are calling for strikes on Iran, are beginning to prevail in U.S. leadership circles. From the U.S. perspective, Washington appears to have concluded that a measure of engagement with and positive messaging toward Tehran might limit U.S. military casualties and prevent the Gaza war from engulfing the entire region.

With the vital interests of both Iran and the United States at stake, the New York Times has reported that a senior White House Middle East envoy, Brett McGurk, held indirect talks with Iran’s deputy foreign minister and chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, in the Sultanate of Oman on January 10. The talks, reportedly held at the request of Iran, were mediated by Omani officials who shuttled between the two delegations. U.S. officials specifically sought to enlist Tehran’s help to dissuade the Houthi movement of Yemen from continuing its attacks on commercial shipping. Iran, signaling it has limited influence over the Houthis, insisted it would not try to de-escalate the Red Sea attacks unless the Houthis’ demand for a ceasefire in the Gaza war was met. Despite the lack of progress in the discussions, Iran and the United States have since, according to a variety of sources, continued to exchange messages through third countries, including Oman. The Sultanate, as well as the other countries in the Persian Gulf, hosts U.S. forces and assesses that any direct U.S.-Iran conflict will inevitably directly affect the Gulf states as well. A decade ago, Oman hosted several private U.S.-Iran meetings that eventually paved the way for the multilateral Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) in 2015. Oman has also served as a key intermediary between the Houthis and the Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition fighting that group for control of Yemen in the hopes of resolving that decade-long conflict. However, many global officials assess the Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea have largely derailed the Yemen peace talks.

Oman has also been willing to channel indirect U.S. messaging to Tehran through continued sanctions relief. In mid-March, U.S. officials renewed an Iran sanctions waiver that enables Iraq to transfer another $10 billion in electricity and natural gas payments to Iran via third countries. The authority granted in the latest waiver allows Iraq to convert dinars into Euros and transfer payments into Iranian bank accounts in Oman. Perhaps suggesting some U.S. effort to incentivize Iran to pressure the Houthis to de-escalate, the March sanctions waiver, in contrast to previous Iraqi payments-related waivers, allows Tehran to access money and use it for budget support, including debt payments and import subsidies. The text of the waiver has not been released, and the claims of broadened sanctions relief authority were advanced by pro-Israeli think tanks opposed to any Iran sanctions relief. The expanded waiver, coming amid calls from many in Congress to tighten, not loosen, sanctions on Iran, might have also served as a sign of U.S. appreciation for Tehran’s insistence that its Iraqi and Syrian militia allies refrain from further attacks on U.S. forces. The militias have not conducted any significant assaults on U.S. bases in either Iraq or Syria since those U.S. retaliatory attacks. On the other hand, the militia groups might also have been deterred by the significant U.S. strikes on their assets in early February and not by overtures to stand down emanating from Tehran.

For its part, Iran has also taken several significant steps, beyond intercession with its Iraqi and Syrian protégé movements, to de-escalate tensions with Washington. In late February, inspectors from the United Nations nuclear watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told diplomats that Iran had reduced its level of highly enriched uranium (60 percent enriched – near the weapons-grade threshold of 90 percent enriched) by 5 percent since November. Although Iran still possesses enough enriched uranium to fuel several nuclear weapons within weeks, the decrease in Iran’s stockpile of its most highly enriched uranium represented, to many global officials, a signal of Iran’s intent to set aside the nuclear issue from among the broad array of disputes with the United States. Yet, Iran has taken no steps in recent months to resolve differences with the IAEA over inspector access to and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities or to address IAEA questions about nuclear material that was discovered at undeclared sites.

Iran’s closest regional ally, Lebanese Hezbollah, has not attacked or threatened any U.S. forces, assets, or global commercial routes since October 7, instead confining its support for Hamas to cross-border, although gradually escalating, artillery and rocket attacks on northern Israel. In several speeches since October 7, the leader of Hezbollah, Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, reflecting Tehran’s effort to avoid war with Washington, has cited the potential for the United States to retaliate against Iran as the rationale for Hezbollah not entering the war on Hamas’s side full-force. Esmail Qaani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), the IRGC unit that supplies and advises Iran’s regional allies, visited Beirut in February to discuss the risks – to both Hezbollah and Iran -–if Israel follows through on its threats to militarily force Hezbollah to pull back from Israel’s northern border. Israel insists Hezbollah pull back to reassure 80,000 Israelis displaced from towns near the northern border that it is safe to return to their homes. The Qaani trip to Beirut was his third since the October 7 Hamas attack, illustrating the degree to which Iran weighs the potential for the Israel-Hezbollah frontier to spark major conflict. According to Reuters, Nasrallah, apparently sensitive to Tehran’s concerns, reassured Qaani that Hezbollah would avoid dragging Iran into a war with either Israel or the United States and that Hezbollah would fight on its own, telling Qaani: “This is our [Hezbollah’s] fight." Despite Nasrallah’s professed intent to keep Iran out of any Israel-Hezbollah war, many experts assess that Tehran would enter a major Israel-Hezbollah war if doing so is needed to stave off Hezbollah’s defeat. U.S. statements, military deployments, and other actions have all indicated that Iranian involvement on behalf of Hezbollah, for example, by firing part of Iran’s large missile and armed drone arsenal on Israeli territory, could well trigger U.S. strikes on targets in Iran. With the course of the Hamas-Israel war and its derivatives still undetermined, the indirect U.S.-Iran meetings and messaging, U.S. sanctions relief, Iranian nuclear restraint, and Iranian and U.S. intercession with their allies might still not suffice to prevent Tehran and Washington from stumbling into an unwanted conflict.