U.S., Iran Held Secret Talks over Militia Attacks, Gaza War

As Sen. Sullivan wrote Pres. Biden, not holding Iran responsible for the Houthis' attacks is a "continuation of a clearly failed policy of appeasement.”
Houthi supporters attend a rally against the U.S. airstrikes on Yemen and the Israeli offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza SAtrip, in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday, March 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Osamah Abdulrahman)
Houthi supporters attend a rally against the U.S. airstrikes on Yemen and the Israeli offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza SAtrip, in Sanaa, Yemen, Friday, March 8, 2024. (AP Photo/Osamah Abdulrahman)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – The New York Times carried a stunning, but authoritative, report on Friday, detailing discussions between the U.S. and Iran. In essence, it appears that Iran sought to trade a halt in the attacks being carried out by one of its proxy groups—the Yemen-based Houthis’ who are targeting international shipping—for a halt to Israel’s offensive against another group that Iran supports, that is Hamas.

Indirect discussions between the U.S.and Iran were held in Muscat, Oman on Jan. 10. The Iranians had asked for the talks, and the Omanis had “strongly recommended” that the U.S. agree, the Times reported.

The talks were indirect, with Omani officials shuttling between the Iranian delegation, led by Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, who is also Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, and the U.S. delegation, led by Brett McGurk, National Security Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.

The talks were “the first time Iranian and American officials had held in-person negotiations—albeit indirectly—in nearly eight months,” the Times said.

The day-long discussions produced no concrete result, but the two parties have continued to exchange messages through Omani intermediaries in the time since.

Thus, if the U.S. should wish to convey a message to Iran—i.e. tell the Houthis to stop attacking international shipping, or else—it has an easy way to do so. 

But it seems from the Times’ report that that is not likely. The U.S. does not want to confront Iran directly, even as critics say that that, almost certainly is necessary.  

Successful Deterrence, Despite Escalation Fright: Iraq, Syria

As the Times’ report made clear, the Biden administration is fearful of “escalation” with Iran, so it accepts “low-level” attacks by Iranian proxies. 

As regards attacks on U.S. forces in the area that was originally the attitude of the Biden administration–until an assault, on Jan. 28, resulted in the deaths of three U.S. servicemen at a military base in Jordan. 

At that point, the Biden administration finally responded by retaliating in a meaningful way. It was the administration’s most serious military action during its three years in office.

On Feb. 3, the U.S. “conducted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force and affiliated militia groups,” striking“ more than 85 targets,” according to a CENTCOM statement.

Read More: U.S. Says Attacks ‘Must Stop Right Now,’ as it Strikes IRGC, Militias in Iraq, Syria

The next day, an Iraqi militia, Kata’ib Hizbollah, struck a U.S. base in northeast Syria, killing six members of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s main partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria. 

CENTCOM responded with a very targeted, highly lethal strike. A drone, fired by U.S. Special Forces, killed Wissam Mohammed Sabir al-Saadi, the Kata’ib Hizbollah commander responsible for operations in Syria, while he was riding in an automobile in eastern Baghdad in an area that Al-Jazeera described as “a stronghold for armed factions.”

Read More: Pentagon Details Results of U.S. Strikes in Iraq, Yemen

With those two retaliatory strikes, the U.S. made its point: it was capable of wreaking significant destruction on the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria. It had the intelligence and weapons to do so.

Thus, it was not because of the secret diplomacy in Oman the month before that the attacks stopped or the messages that have been exchanged since—despite the Biden administration’s strong attachment to diplomacy.

Rather, it was because of military strikes that showed the U.S. had the will and capacity. Thus, since Feb. 4, there have been no further attacks targeting U.S. forces and their military partners in Iraq and Syria.

Escalation Fright and Failed Deterrence: Yemen

That has not been the case with the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, however. Since Nov. 19, they have launched 102 attacks against ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The U.S., along with the U.K.. have responded with 44 attacks on Houthi targets.

Those targets have generally been Iranian-supplied weapons and striking them has had little effect.

On Wednesday, a Houthi attack killed three crew members of the Liberian-owned MV True Confidence, which is flagged in Barbados. Similarly, on Friday, as the Associated Press reported, the Houthis targeted a tanker in the Red Sea, firing three anti-ship missiles, although they did not hit the vessel.

The Houthis are not, themselves, capable of finding targets out at sea. They rely on the Iranians, who operate a ship in the area for precisely that purpose: to provide targeting information to the Houthis.

The easiest way to stop the Houthis’ attacks on international shipping would be to sink the Iranian spy ship!

Indeed, when CENTCOM Commander, Gen. Erik Kurilla, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R, Alaska) repeatedly pressed him on this issue.

Kurilla seemed sympathetic to Sullivan’s point, but did not provide a coherent answer to the Senator’s repeated questioning about the matter..

Read More: U.S. Intel: Iran will Continue to Threaten U.S. Interests’

Yet with The New York Times report on the continuing U.S.-Iranian secret talks on Jan. 10 and their communications since, one can understand better. 

The Biden administration is prepared to accept “low level” attacks from Iranian proxies, because it is so afraid of “escalation.” As one political analyst in Tehran told the Times, “The goal of the recent negotiations in Oman was for both sides to return” to an “unofficial agreement and keep tensions at a low level.”

But why allow any tensions at all? And what assurance does the administration have that Iran won’t escalate? Or some lucky shot will not kill more Americans? And what about the stated U.S. goal of ensuring freedom of navigation through Operation Prosperity Guardian?

On Friday, Sullivan sent Biden a letter reviewing Kurilla’s testimony, while contrasting the successful cessation of attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria, with the failure to stop the Houthis’ attacks on international shipping, particularly U.S. naval vessels.

Indeed, Sullivan charged Biden with “appeasement.”

Sullivan noted that a week before, the Houthis had “launched a massive barrage of 28 drones and missiles in the Red Sea, trying to sink American ships.”

“Just as I did in the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week,” he continued, “I call on you, Mr. President, to take real action on Iran before it’s too late.” 

“Tell Iran that the next Houthi missile or drone launched at an American ship will result in the sinking of Iran’s spy ships that target our Navy,” he wrote, adding “that this hasn’t already happened” is “the continuation of a clearly failed policy of appeasement.”

“If we ever expect Tehran to call off its terrorist proxies and make deterrence more than a temporary respite, Iran must be made to pay a price,” he concluded.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, spoke similarly to Kurdistan 24.

“Washington continues to send mixed signals on Iran,” Ben Taleblu said. “This is problematic not just for adversaries whom Washington hopes to deter, but partners and allies, who have already been pushed into a more accommodating posture on Iran, because of the lack of great-power cover.” 

As an example, he cited Saudi Arabia’s uneasy restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran a year ago.