Professor Nicholas J. Wheeler and Joshua Baker of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham evaluate the strategy and significance of President Obama’s letter to the Supreme Leader:
Last week, The Wall Street Journal revealed that President Barack Obama had sent a secret letter to the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urging him to accept the terms of a comprehensive nuclear agreement with the United States and other major world powers. While the exact details of any such agreement remain unclear, Obama reportedly made the case that if Iran and the United States could come to terms on the nuclear issue, this would foster a wider cooperation that would serve Iran’s interests in the Middle East. This new outreach has been met with vitriol in Washington, with Democratic and Republican politicians joining forces to condemn the move.
While the letter was initially sent in mid-October, the timing of its leak is not insignificant. A tri-lateral meeting between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, US Secretary of State John Kerry, and the European Union’s former High Representative and continuing lead negotiator on Iran, Catherine Ashton, took place on November 9-10 in Oman. A week later, the Iranian delegation and the P5+1 (US, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) are due in Vienna to negotiate a final deal before the clock runs out at midnight on November 24. A failure to reach a deal opens the door to Iran exiting the constraints on its nuclear programme, agreed last November in The Joint Action Plan, potentially pushing the Islamic Republic ever closer towards a nuclear weapons break-out capability.
The timing of Obama’s letter tells us two key things. The first is that Obama continues to believe that progress on the nuclear issue depends upon opening a trusted back-channel of communication with Khamenei. Any final decision on whether Iran and the United States reach a deal by 24 November, or a future date if the deadline is extended, will not be made by the negotiating team in Vienna nor by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Khamenei, as Obama has appreciated since he came to office in January 2009, is the key decision-maker when it comes to Iran making concessions on its nuclear programme.
Secondly, the sending of the letter underscores how badly Obama wants the success on his watch of negotiating a comprehensive and lasting settlement of the Iranian nuclear file, something which eluded his Republican predecessor. However, his room for manoeuvre in achieving this has been further reduced by the mid-term elections handing control of the Senate to Republicans, who remain staunchly opposed to any deal that does not significantly roll back Iran’s break-out potential.
Despite these powerful US domestic obstacles to an agreement, there is some evidence that Khamenei may be throwing his weight behind his negotiating team. Using his personal Twitter account, the Supreme Leader posted on 10 November a graphic listing nine reasons why he supports the talks. What is unclear is how far Obama’s letter was influential in this public display of confidence in the negotiating process.
Nevertheless, there is good reason to think that the Supreme Leader has not given up his bad-faith model of the US Government, whatever his personal views of Obama’s sincerity and trustworthiness on the nuclear issue. Khamenei remains deeply suspicious of US motives and intentions, and this distrust sets the “red lines” within which Rouhani and Zarif have to work as they struggle to find common ground in Vienna.
Given Khamenei’s deep-rooted conviction that the United States is an implacable foe of the Islamic Republic, we question whether Obama’s letter has done enough — or indeed anything at all — to shift the Iranian position such that the Supreme Leader would accept the level of curbs on Iran’s nuclear programme that would enable Obama to sell a deal in the United States. But Khamenei would be far more responsive to this US demand if the reciprocation for these restrictions was a level of sanctions relief that met Iranian perceptions of fairness in the negotiations.