US-Iran talks limited to their own security interests

Regional states should not wait for Iran or the US to address their security needs. It is time for them to take matters into their own hands.

US-Iran talks limited to their own security interests

Since Hamas's 7 October attack on Israel, indirect negotiations that had been taking place between the US and Iran to exchange detainees and release the latter's frozen assets in South Korea and revenue from oil and gas sales in Iraq froze for a few months.

They picked up again in January when the two countries held secret talks in the Omani capital of Muscat to de-escalate Red Sea tensions and encourage Iran to pressure the Houthis to stop their attacks on global shipping there. A few days ago, the Axios website revealed that US and Iranian officials met again in Muscat to discuss how to avoid further escalation in the region.

Despite growing regional tensions, the US and Iran continue to be in indirect communication through countries like Oman, Qatar, and Switzerland—the latter overseeing US interests in Tehran and Iranian interests in Washington.

Talks between the two countries have pivoted away from Iran's nuclear programme, as both sides acknowledge that a deal similar to the JCPOA brokered by the Obama administration and torn up by Trump cannot be reinstated. Instead, talks have focused on regional security, given Iran's outsized influence over militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Apart from these indirect discussions, reports of direct negotiations between the parties within the halls of the United Nations in New York have been leaked. Since 7 October and Israel's subsequent war on Gaza, it has been clear that both parties are not interested in expanding the conflict into a wider regional war.

Neglected states

Having said that, it seems that from the ongoing military exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel, this aspect of the conflict has not been fully addressed in the US-Iran talks.

Biden's willingness to engage in negotiations with Iran is tantamount to de facto US recognition of Iran's regional influence.

Lebanon—a country already grappling with a crippling economic crisis—continues to suffer the consequences of this continuing war. Some reports indicate that residents of certain southern villages who have been displaced may not be able to return for years due to the extensive destruction or the use of white phosphorus by Israel, which makes living conditions nearly impossible.

The negotiations also failed to adequately address Jordan's security, which Iran has been trying to continuously undermine through its allies, and Syria, which has long served as a battleground for conflicts and messages exchanged between Israeli and Iranian factions.

De facto recognition

The Biden administration's willingness to engage in negotiations with Iran despite its destabilising activities in the area is tantamount to de facto US recognition of Iran's regional influence.

These discussions are primarily centred not on freeing hostages or improving their living conditions but on averting any adverse consequences of Iran's actions in the region on Israel's security and Washington's interests. And they come at a time when regional states have either chosen to align with Iran or are not able to counter Iranian influence and that of its affiliated militias. 

It is time for regional states to reassess their security needs, identify common threats, and devise strategies for best tackling them. The US and Iran are clearly focused on their own interests, so it is up to individual states to take matters into their own hands.

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