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Iranian leader said to okay direct talks with US on reviving nuke deal

A report Tuesday claimed Iran’s top leader has given the go-ahead for direct talks with the US over its nuclear program, days after Washington said it blocked Tehran’s top diplomat from visiting.

According to the UK-based Amwaj.media, Iran wants to resuscitate negotiations over bringing the United States back into the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action where they were when they fell apart about a year ago. Those talks, which were conducted via the European Union, collapsed after both sides indicated it was nearly a done deal.

Publicly, the US has expressed little interest in returning to the table. But it has repeatedly touted diplomacy as its preferred option for stopping Iran from nuclear weapons capabilities, and recently negotiated a prisoner swap with Tehran that included unfreezing some $6 billion in Iranian money that had been a major point of contention.

Citing senior Iranian sources, Amwaj reported that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had “granted permission” for direct nuclear talks between Iran and the US.

It said top Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri is looking to meet US special envoy Brett McGurk in Oman in the coming weeks. Bagheri had permission to meet with McGurk in New York earlier this month on the sidelines of the United Nations’ annual high-level meeting, according to the report, but the sit-down never materialized.

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Oman has previously been used as a quiet jumping-off point for talks between the arch-enemies, but there have been no public direct talks since the US pulled out of the nuclear deal in 2018. Then-Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was reportedly invited to the White House in 2019, but Khamenei refused permission at the time, according to Amwaj.

Backchannel talks have been ongoing since earlier this year and have allowed the sides to de-escalate tensions, leading to Iran slowing down enrichment activity, which it had ramped up significantly in recent years, and the US easing back on sanctions enforcement, according to Amwaj.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, visits an exhibition of Iran’s nuclear achievements, at his office compound in Tehran, Iran, June 11, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader, Via AP)

However, any chances of a deal would be complicated by Iran’s alleged arming of Russia to bolster its invasion of Ukraine and domestic US politics; analysts believe US President Joe Biden is unlikely to agree to a new nuclear deal before elections in November 2024.

On Monday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters that Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian had been denied permission to visit Iran’s consular interest section in Washington, DC, following the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“Given Iran’s wrongful detention of US citizens, given Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, we did not believe it was either appropriate or necessary in this instance to grant that request,” he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has played down speculation that the prisoner deal this month could lead to broader diplomatic movement, including over Iran’s contested nuclear program.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian speaks during a press conference following a meeting with his Omani counterpart, in Muscat on June 21, 2023. (AFP)

Amwaj.media had also first reported on Amir-Abdollahian’s hope to visit Washington, in what would have been the first by an Iranian foreign minister in 14 years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has loudly opposed the 2015 nuclear deal that curbed Iranian enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief, and has pushed for other powers to pull out of the deal rather than the US rejoining it.

Speaking at the UN on Friday, Netanyahu called for Western powers to re-impose sanctions on Iran, in a speech mainly focused on a nascent US-brokered normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani waves as he leaves after talks at the Coburg Palais, the venue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in Vienna on August 4, 2022. (Alex Halada/AFP)

Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had barred a third of its inspectors from overseeing nuclear sites in the country, and reportedly confirmed that Tehran had not yet dealt with several issues, though it had lowered its stockpile of enriched material.

Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was estimated at 3,795.5 kilograms (8,367.7 pounds) as of August 19, down by 949 kilograms from May, the agency said. The limit in the 2015 deal was set at 202.8 kilograms.

Iran claims its nuclear program is peaceful, but as of August its stockpile of uranium enriched up to 60 percent, just a short step from weapons-grade, stood at 121.6 kilos, up from 114.1 kilos in May, according to an IAEA report seen by AFP.

AFP contributed to this report.