Deciphering Obama's letter to the Supreme Leader

Earlier this week, it was reported by The Wall Street Journal 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 agreement with the United States and other major world powers on the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme.

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 the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the US Secretary of State John Kerry, and the EU’s former High Representative and continuing lead negotiator on Iran, Catherine Ashton, took place over two days on 9–10 November in Oman.

This is just over a week before the Iranian delegation and the P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany) are due in Vienna to negotiate a final deal before the clock runs out at midnight on 24 November. A failure to reach a deal opens the door to Iran exiting the constraints on its nuclear programme agreed to 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 backchannel 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, or by the President of Iran 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 – on his watch – the success of negotiating a comprehensive and lasting settlement of the Iranian nuclear file, something which eluded his Republican predecessor. But his room for manoeuvre in achieving this has been further reduced by the mid-term elections that handed 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 tweeted, on 10 November, a graphic listing nine reasons why he supported 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’ that Rouhani and Zarif have to work within 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 to enable Obama to sell a deal in the United States. 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.

Joshua Baker
Doctoral researcher in the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security and the Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham

Nicholas J Wheeler
Professor of International Relations and Director of the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security, University of Birmingham