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Obama’s Letter to Khamenei Threatens to Throw Key Talks off Course

November 7, 2014
Reza HaghighatNejad
6 min read
Obama’s Letter to Khamenei Threatens to Throw Key Talks off Course
Obama’s Letter to Khamenei Threatens to Throw Key Talks off Course

Obama’s Letter to Khamenei Threatens to Throw Key Talks off Course


On Thursday, November 6, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Barack Obama sent a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in October, saying that it was in the two countries’ best interests to work together against Islamic State militants, but that any collaboration would be contingent on reaching a nuclear agreement. 

The news, which came hours before a crucial meeting between the US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Oman, added a new twist to Iran-US relations and to anticipation around nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries later this month. 

Letter-writing has been a favorite tactic of the Obama administration over the last five years: this is the fourth letter the president has sent to the Supreme Leader demonstrating that it means to do business with Iran’s principal decision-maker. The approach has been successful in places, with nuclear talks taking place behind doors as a direct result. 

According to Wall Street Journal sources, Obama’s letter outlines that any cooperation over confronting the Islamic State in Iraq depended on Iran and the P5+ countries reaching a comprehensive agreement on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by November 24. 

For Iran watchers, news of the letter comes as no surprise. In a television interview on September 15, Ayatollah Khamenei said he had been approached three times to engage in talks about the Islamic State. “Some of our officials had no problems with it but I opposed it,” he said. “I told them that we are not going to cooperate with America in this issue because their own hands are dirty...There is no higher honor that to have the Americans be disappointed with us, given their misguided and wrong efforts.”

If the US consented to Iran joining an international coalition against the insurgents, it would no doubt elevate Iran’s standing in the region. But Khamenei has said that he is categorically against such an offer, no matter what risks hang in the balance.

Obama’s letter clearly links coalition efforts against the Islamic State with nuclear negotiations. But in the run-up to President Rouhani’s attendance at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Iranian officials painted a different picture, one where working together to combat Islamic State would build confidence around a potential nuclear agreement. 

But, over the past two months, both Kerry and Zarif have clearly stated that the troubles in Iraq must be kept separate from nuclear negotiations.

It is this conflation of issues that has led hardliners and affiliated media to warn of "mission creep." In recent months, they have repeatedly suggested that nuclear talks — and any concessions made — could lead to talks on other issues.

At this stage, reaching a nuclear agreement is not about the finer details. It is about whether there is enough political will in Washington D.C. and Tehran to bring about a deal. Undoubtedly, Obama’s letter added pressure to the situation, pushing the Supreme Leader to make a decision about whether Iran will cooperate or not. And in recent days, President Obama has said that Iran has been presented with an offer that would guarantee its nuclear rights. If Iranian negotiators agree, he said, he would work to get Congress’ support. 


Blaming the Blame Game

Although some analysts have described the current climate as a historical opportunity for Iran: the end of sanctions could be within grasping distance. 

On October 26, Khorasan, a moderate daily newspaper close to Khamenei’s office, accused the West of blaming Iran for disrupting otherwise smooth negotiations. It referred to statements by US chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman, who had said at a recent symposium in Washington that an acceptable agreement was on the table and it was up to Iran to show willingness. “All these years, Western countries have tried to blame Iran for lack of progress or failure,” the editorial in Khorsan said. “This benefits the West. They hope to damage the credibility of Iranian negotiators in domestic public opinion. They also hope to damage Iran’s reputation internationally and pave the way for creating or preserving a consensus on unreasonable sanctions.”

Iranian hardliners have interpreted Obama’s recent letter to Ayatollah Khamenei as part of a larger strategy, a game that seeks to strip Iran of power. Foreign Minister Zarif has worked hard to present himself as a strong negotiator working to procure Iran’s best interests, but he has also made it clear that he is not interested in casting blame when it comes to nuclear talks. Khamenei, on the other hand, seems determined to find someone to blame. 

Over the past year, the Supreme Leader has repeatedly attacked the West, referring to discussions about sanctions as futile. Close political and military allies have depicted negotiations as nothing more than a tactic, exposing the West’s true intentions — to foster hatred for the Islamic Republic. “They use excuses that sound good to the public,” Khamenei said on March 22 this year. He, on the other hand, has made it his business to break down the atmosphere the West has created and show the world the truth.  

Ayatollah Khamenei is all too aware of the consequences of being associated with — or to be blame for — failed negotiations. But he is equally worried about being blamed by his own supporters if an agreement is reached. In a neat but vague set of parameters for the right way to approach negotiations, posted on his website, the Supreme Leader has fought off responsibility for both failure and success.  

Ayatollah Khamenei has put forward long-term plans for the development of Iran over the last three decades. But economic hardship caused by years of isolation have meant most of these plans cannot be realized. Like Khamenei, Mohammad-Ali Jafari, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, wants politicians and officials to turn their attention inwards. “The goal of negotiations is either the sanctions are lifted or officials become so disappointed with negotiations that they decide to pay attention to domestic matters. The aim of the negotiations is to lift economic pressure off the people.”

This goal, however, has been overshadowed by a number of political and military concerns. Ayatollah Khamenei is not currently head of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, the body that would ensure any signed nuclear agreement would help solve the country’s economic problems. So there is no guarantee that negotiations, if they succeed, will necessarily lead to improvements in the economy.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s 25 years as Supreme Leader have shown him to be unwilling to become involved in big political or social shifts, especially if they take place on a large, global canvas. His handling of the disputed 2009 presidential elections provides a perfect example of his inability to manage or solve big crises.

This, coupled with his entrenched pessimism about the West, particularly the US and Britain, reveals a problematic, dangerous figure, a leader unable to provide for his people. This, of course, not only spells trouble for nuclear negotiations, but for the future of Iran’s people. 


Images of Iran

Friday Prayers, Tehran

November 7, 2014
Friday Prayers, Tehran