United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Obama Wrote Khamenei on ISIS Threat

      President Barack Obama wrote a secret letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in mid-October to express concern about the growing threat of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, to the Middle East and the world. The message, which laid out a shared interest in combating ISIS, was the fourth letter Obama has sent since 2009, according to The Wall Street Journal.


           
The initial report said that Obama stipulated that cooperation on ISIS would be largely dependent on the result of ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers. But when asked about the letter in an interview with CBS, Obama said “we are not connecting in any way the nuclear negotiations from the issue of ISIL.” The two sides have until November 24 to reach a final agreement on Tehran’s controversial nuclear program. The latest series of talks, launched in October 2013, has featured the highest level engagement between the Islamic Republic and the United States since the embassy takeover, when 52 Americans were held for 444 days. 

            U.S. and Iranian leaders have sent letters to each other several times during the past decade. In 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a strange 18-page letter to President George Bush that declared the failure of Western democracy and criticized U.S. policies in Iraq as irreconcilable with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Ahmadinejad also sent a congratulatory letter to Obama after the 2008 presidential election and another message in March 2010.  Obama did not reply to either. But Obama did exchange letters with President Hassan Rouhani sometime after his June 2009 election.

            On November 12, a top Iranian official acknowledged the Obama-Khamenei correspondence. “This is not the first time that such a thing has taken place,” Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani said on state television, according to AP. “It had previously taken place and necessary response was given to some of them.” He said the latest letter focused on nuclear issues and that Iran responded saying that it cannot accept a “decorative” nuclear industry, implying that the United States wants to significantly curtail the program.

            Obama administration officials, however, have declined to comment on the contents of Obama’s most recent letter to Khamenei. But White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told reporters that U.S. policy on Iran had not changed. “The United States will not cooperate militarily with Iran in that effort [fighting ISIS],” he said. “We won't share intelligence with them. But their interests in the outcome is something that's been widely commented on - commented upon and something that on a couple of occasions has been discussed on the sidelines of other conversations.”

            On November 9, Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked Obama about the secret letter. The president responded:
             I tend not to comment on any communications that I have with various leaders. I'm-- I've got a whole bunch of channels where we're communicating to various leaders around the world. Let me speak more broadly about the policies vis-à-vis Iran. We have two big interests in Iran that are short term and then we got a long-term interest. Our number one priority with respect to Iran is making sure they don't get nuclear weapon. And because of the unprecedented sanctions that this administration put forward and mobilized the world to abide by, they got squeezed, their economy tanked, and they came to the table in a serious way for the first time in a very, very long time. We've now had significant negotiations. They have abided by freezing their program and, in fact, reducing their stockpile of nuclear-grade material or-- or weapons-grade nuclear material. And the question now is are we going to be able to close this final gap so that they can reenter the international community, sanctions can be slowly reduced, and we have verifiable, lock-tight assurances that they can't develop a nuclear weapon. There's still a big gap. We may-- may not be able to get there.
            The second thing that we have an interest in is that Iran has influence over Shia, both in Syria and in Iraq, and we do have a shared enemy in ISIL. But I've been very clear publicly and privately we are not connecting in any way the nuclear negotiations from the issue of ISIL. We're not coordinating with Iran on ISIL. There's some de-conflicting in the sense that since they have some troops or militias they control in and around Baghdad, we let them know, don't mess with us, we're not here to mess with you, we're focused on common our enemy but there's no coordination or common battle plan and there will not be because, and this brings me to the third issue, we still have big differences with Iran's behavior vis-à-vis our allies. Then, you know, poking and prodding at-- and-- and creating unrest and sponsoring terrorism in the region, around the world, their anti-Israeli rhetoric and behavior so that's a whole another set of issues which prevents us from ever being true allies...

           The letter is one of more than a dozen secret and public attempts at outreach by the Obama administration. The following is a chronology of direct U.S. engagement with Iran since Obama took office in January 2009.

 
Obama’s Engagement with Iran
 
Jan. 27, 2009: In Obama’s first interview since taking office, he told Al Arabiya that “it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress.”

March 20, 2009: President Barak Obama sent a Nowruz (Iranian New Year) message to the Iranian people and government that called for better relations. He also said that Iran’s place in the international community “cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions.”
 
Ayatollah Khamenei referred to Obama’s speech as deceptive. In light of recent sanctions, he said Iran would judge the United States by its actions and not by its words.
 
May 2009: President Obama sent a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei before Iran’s June presidential elections that called for improved relations through “co-operation and regional bilateral relations.” Khamenei briefly mentioned the letter in his Friday sermon.
 
September 2009: An Iranian news website reported a second letter sent by Obama to Khamenei again calling for talks between Tehran and Washington. Obama did not receive a reply.
 
March 20, 2010: Obama sent a second Nowruz message to the Iranian government and people. The message encouraged dialogue between the two countries.
 
March 20, 2011:  Obama sent a third Nowruz message to Iran, directed specifically at Iran’s youth. The President addressed Iran’s young people, saying, “your talent, your hopes, and your choices will shape the future of Iran, and help light the world. And though times may seem dark, I want you to know that I am with you.”
 
January 2012: Iranian lawmaker Ali Motahari claimed Obama called for direct talks with Iran and warned Tehran against closing the Strait of Hormuz in a letter. But administration officials denied that such a letter had been sent.
 
March 20, 2012: Obama sent a fourth Nowruz message to the Iranian government and people. The message accused Iran of having an “Electronic Curtain,” criticizing the Iranian government’s internet censorship.
 
Mid-2012: The Obama administration launched secret talks with Iran in Oman, but did not notify U.S. allies in the region until late 2013.
 
Feb. 2, 2013: Vice President Joe Biden said that the United States was prepared to hold direct talks with Iran to resolve tensions over its controversial nuclear program.
countries and criticized Iran’s human rights violations during post-election protests.
 
Feb. 7, 2013: Supreme Leader Khamenei rejected the offer by Vice President Biden for direct talks. “Some naïve people like the idea of negotiating with America. However, negotiations will not solve the problem,” he said in a speech to Iranian Air Force commanders.
 
March 18, 2013: Obama sent a fifth Nowruz message to Iran saying there could be a “new relationship” with Iran if it meets international obligations on its controversial nuclear program.
 
March 21, 2013: Khamenei said he is not opposed to direct talks with the United States in a speech marking Nowruz. But he is “not optimistic” about prospects for success if negotiations take place. He also claimed that the United States “doesn’t want the nuclear conflict to end.”
 
March 2013: The first secret meeting between top Obama administration and Iranian  officials was held in Muscat, Oman. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, foreign policy advisor to Joe Biden, led the delegations. At least four more meetings were held leading up to November 2013, when the world’s six major powers and Iran agreed on an interim nuclear deal.
 
August 2013: Obama reportedly sent a letter to President Rouhani through Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who visited Tehran shortly after Rouhani’s inauguration. The exact contents of the letter and Rouhani’s reply are unknown but Obama’s remarks hinted that they discussed the nuclear dispute and Syria.
 
Sept. 15, 2013: Obama confirmed in a televised interview that he had exchanged letters with President Hassan Rouhani. Obama indicated in the message that the U.S. is ready to “resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” according to the White House. He also warned that the window of opportunity for diplomacy will not remain open indefinitely.
 
Sept. 27, 2013: President Obama called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in what was the first direct communication between a U.S. and Iranian presidents since the 1979 revolution. “The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program,” Obama said at a White House briefing.
March 20, 2014: Obama sent a sixth Nowruz message to Iran. “This Nowruz could mark not just the beginning of a new year, but a new chapter in the history of Iran and its role in the world—including a better relationship with the United States and the American people, rooted in mutual interest and mutual respect,” he said.
 
Mid-October 2014: Obama wrote Khamenei a letter outlining a shared interest in combating Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
 

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