Obama’s Supreme Pen Pal In Tehran

Yesterday, the WSJ broke the news that President Obama sent a secret letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month, “aimed both at buttressing the campaign against Islamic State and nudging Iran’s religious leader closer to a nuclear deal”:

Mr. Obama stressed to Mr. Khamenei that any cooperation on Islamic State was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with global powers on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by a Nov. 24 diplomatic deadline, the same people say. The October letter marked at least the fourth time Mr. Obama has written Iran’s most powerful political and religious leader since taking office in 2009 and pledging to engage with Tehran’s Islamist government. The correspondence underscores that Mr. Obama views Iran as important—whether in a potentially constructive or negative role—to his emerging military and diplomatic campaign to push Islamic State from the territories it has gained over the past six months.

The letter represents a significant shift in the administration’s approach to Iran:

The disclosure of the letter is likely to raise the political pressure on the White House, which is already coming under fire from lawmakers in both parties concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran in order to strike a landmark nuclear deal before a Nov. 24 deadline. It also raises new questions about the precise contours of the White House’s Iran policy. Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last month, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the U.S. wasn’t working with Iran on the fight against the Islamic State.

Tom Rogan rejects that shift:

[W]hen he receives solicitous letters from the American president, Ayatollah Khamenei can only be encouraged to make a deal on Iran’s terms. It’s important to remember that while Khamenei is a hardliner amenable to pragmatic concerns, he’s only allowing Rouhani to negotiate for a simple reason: economics. With Iran’s economy suffering under the dual burden of sanctions and low oil prices (oil revenue being critical to Iran’s government expenditure), Iran must negotiate. As overlord of a young population that has increasing cultural and intellectual connections with the West, Khamenei fears that continued economic pain will feed social instability and threaten his ongoing Islamic revolution. His pragmatism is thus a consequence of Iran’s economic pain.

President Obama should pay closer heed to Iran’s economic pain and abandon his current carrot-heavy approach in favor of clarifying three precepts to the Iranians. First, America seeks a deal and will allow low-enrichment activities in return for an unimpeded inspections regime, the verified closure of high-risk weaponized facilities, and centrifuge limits. Second, America will not accept a bad deal and will introduce tougher sanctions if the deadline expires. Third, the military option, though complex, is very much on the table. Republicans should support President Obama in this effort.

Allahpundit on the letter:

Riddle me this, though. Why would Khamenei care about formal U.S. cooperation against ISIS? Western airstrikes appear to be making headway against the group, slowing its advance if not quite reversing its gains (yet). Americans support the anti-ISIS campaign heavily so Obama’s going to keep it up whether Khamenei will take his calls or not. The main virtue of formal cooperation, I would think, is the propaganda value in it. Having the U.S. coordinate with Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s sworn enemy would be a humiliation to both allies. Maybe there’s something in that for Khamenei, but to get it he’d have to step back (a little) from the anti-Americanism that helped birth Khomeinism. How do you go from “Death to America” to “Let’s fight ISIS with America” overnight?

John McCain and other Iran hawks are predictably furious. Juan Cole rolls his eyes at the shallow analysis their reaction betrays:

[T]he US needs Iran in Iraq, but views Iran as an enemy in Syria. McCain’s reaction is mainly about Syria, not Iraq. But if you look closely at the latter country, you can see that ISIL probably cannot be defeated without Iranian help. McCain has never appeared to meditate the mistakes he made in arming Muslim radicals to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, which led in some ways to the rise of al-Qaeda.

Great powers always have to make friends among states that are enemies of one another. The US has to have good relations with Greece and Turkey, and with Pakistan and India. Obama needs Iran in Iraq. It may be unpalatable, but the US needs Iran. Moreover, the US cannot defeat ISIL in Syria if it concentrates on bombing the al-Assad government, as McCain wants. McCain, who doesn’t usually show evidence of being capable of a nuanced or subtle foreign policy, doesn’t appreciate this need.

Barak Ravid notes that Israel might not have been told about the letter, speculating that “if Israel … learned of it only from the Wall Street Journal, that is liable to deepen the already severe lack of trust between Jerusalem and Washington on an issue –Iran – that is critical to their relationship”. Dov Zakheim accuses Obama of pushing Israel toward war:

[I]f an arrangement with Iran is seen to be likely to hold, the result could well be another American war in the Middle East. Israel has been threatening for years that it is prepared to take unilateral action against Iran if that country does not discontinue its nuclear weapons program. Given the total lack of trust between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, were there no real prospect that Congress could block the deal from taking place, Israel might well launch an attack against Iranian targets. In response, Tehran would not only attempt to retaliate against Israel, it would most certainly hold the United States accountable as well, regardless of any denials emanating from Washington. Should Iran attack American forces, or ordinary Americans anywhere in the world, the administration would have no choice but to react. The president would find himself doing exactly what his appeasement of Iran sought to avoid: a costly war whose demands on American personnel and materiel would stretch the military to its limits.

The usual threats from the Israel lobby should be treated with the contempt they deserve. Zack Beauchamp cautions that the move could easily backfire:

Obama’s goal is probably in part to use this letter, by setting up linkage with Iran between nukes and ISIS, as a incentive to make Iran more willing to strike a nuclear deal. But Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, thinks the linkage idea could make ISIS cooperation needlessly harder to get. Maloney argues that if the US-Iran negotiations had stayed on two separate tracks, nuclear and ISIS, the success of one wouldn’t be dependent on the success of the other. But once Obama’s position is that the US needs nuclear concessions in order to consider ISIS cooperation, then getting ISIS cooperation becomes harder.

But cooperating with Tehran on ISIS might be a bad goal in itself. In Syria, Iran’s principal objective isn’t destroying ISIS: it’s defending Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime. Making a deal with Iran would likely mean an at least implicit degree of alliance with Assad, which might actually end up making ISIS stronger. This is more possible than you think, and underscores just how dangerous a game Obama is playing with Khamenei.

I’d love to know who leaked the letter and why. It’s a bold move, it seems to me. But very hard to read in the context of negotiations we have, understandably, little access to. Overall, I find it encouraging – evidence that the president knows how crucial this move will be, and how central to his legacy it could become. It will be fascinating to see Hillary Clinton’s response to the deal, if it emerges. She may actually have to take a stand at some point, after all.