The message in Obama’s ‘secret’ letter to the Ayatollah

Like Obama, Khamenei has to contend with his own set of hardliners who vehemently oppose Iran’s nucl

Obama's letter to Khamenei would not make or break the nuclear deal, writes Torfeh [AP]

Why should the president of the only superpower in the world feel it necessary to write a “secret” letter to his counterpart in another country? Indeed Barack Obama’s reported letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is intriguing and shows the level of pressure he must be under to have to act under cover.

Yet, if true, it is the right move by the US president on the eve of the ongoing trilateral talks in Oman between Iran, US and the EU and only a few weeks prior to the final round of nuclear talks in Vienna on November 24. It would underpin the importance of the success of the deal and the positive combination of factors at play.

We know little about the content of the letter but in it Obama has, no doubt, reiterated his gesture at the UN General Assembly in September: “Do not let this opportunity pass,” he said addressing Iran.

The pressure from the Israeli lobby, both in and out of the US Congress, is alive and well. The recent US mid-term election has made it even more vocal. Senator John McCain accused Obama of playing “footsie” with Iran and Congressman John Boehner expressed serious doubts about Iran’s intentions. Obama must have reminded Khamenei of these factors, stressing that the November 24 deadline is only a few weeks before the Republican-dominated Congress takes hold on January 6.

Obama’s hardliners

Like Obama, Khamenei also has to contend with his own set of hardliners who vehemently oppose Iran’s nuclear talks.

“The only benefit of the Iran-P5+1 talks is to make the most stupid individuals in Iran understand that the US [cannot be trusted],” said Ahmad Khatami, in his Friday prayer sermon at Tehran University.

Empire – Iran and the US: Diplomatic enrichment

In Iran, Obama’s letter has been largely ignored with the hard-line Keyhan editorial denying its existence. Yet, in Khamenei’s latest speeches, there is a slight change in tone. The usual anti-US rhetoric is there but the focus seems to have shifted to advocating unity between Sunnis and Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria.

“The two sides should be careful,” he said in his speech on October 13. “They should not provoke each other’s feelings, they should not insult each other’s holy beliefs and they should not fuel the fire of discord between Muslim tribes and groups.”

This appeal for calm could be in response to Obama’s reported request for collaboration over fighting ISIL.

Obama’s letter to Khamenei would not make or break the nuclear deal but it will strike the right chord. It would be seen as respecting Iran, and as offering a hand of friendship – just as US Secretary of State John Kerry did when meeting his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Muscat. It may not bring in full trust but it would go some way in keeping Khamenei’s approval intact while the negotiations are taking place and while Iran’s blocked assets are gradually being released in compliance with the Geneva accord.

Positive overtures by Iran’s key negotiatior, Abbas Araqchi, who is close to the supreme leader, could also indicate that the letter has been well received.

Factors at play

The letter would also underpin a positive combination of factors at play at the talks: In Iran for the first time, the talks carry the tacit approval of the establishment, the tone of the media has become more conciliatory, and President Hassan Rouhani, one of the main architects of talks with the US over the past decade, is keen to put his signature on the deal.

In Iran for the first time, the talks carry the tacit approval of the establishment, the tone of the media has become more conciliatory, and President Hassan Rouhani … is keen to put his signature on the deal.

In the US, Obama and the Democrats badly need one success story before they leave the White House.

In the EU, there is a strong resolve to reach a conclusion. A number of veterans of European foreign policy have recently signed a joint statement urging the EU3+3 and Iran to ensure an agreement is reached by the designated deadline.

“All sides have the option to walk away,” says the statement, “but they do so knowing that the alternatives are far worse”.

Another positive is the element of the highly experienced set of negotiators at work. The US and Iranian foreign ministers, together with former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, have worked long and hard in over seven rounds of talks in Vienna and one more in New York to make a success of it.

This is further strengthened by the involvement of Russia, China, and Germany. Just before coming to Muscat, Kerry met his Russian and Chinese counterparts at the meeting of APEC in China and before that he met French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius in Paris.

There are two main remaining problems. First is the concern that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has raised on the eve of the Muscat talks. While it confirms in its latest report that Iran is complying with an agreement to curb uranium enrichment, IAEA says in a confidential report to its members that Iran has not made any progress in its investigation into possible military dimensions of the programme. Although the deal being sought by world powers is separate to the IAEA’s investigation, the report would no doubt raise questions.

Red lines

The second problem is that the Iranian negotiators have their strict set of red lines including the sanctity of Iran’s nuclear industry. They have also been told they must demand the full removal of sanctions – something that is unlikely to get congressional approval. Yet Iran’s deputy chief negotiator seems to be optimistic.

Muscat talks can open the path,” said Araqchi, adding that “on the issue of sanctions there are four channels”. He is referring to the two sets of US sanctions plus the UN and EU sanctions. He is not saying it directly but could be implying that some of these channels must be utilised in the talks.

Given the seriousness of the sanctions issue for Iran, and the equal concerns of the countries of 5+1 about the verifications issue, it is very unlikely that a complete deal would be struck by the deadline of November 24. Yet, if an agreement could be reached in Muscat in regards to dropping some of the sanctions – say those by the EU and the UN – in return for an acceptable level of information from Iran, then it is probable that a partial or temporary deal could later be reached in Vienna outlining the basis for future adjustments.

Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) and is currently a research associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.