March 11, 2009

Obama may send letter to Khamenei on new way forward

As we had been hearing for some time, it appears the administration’s policy review has completed at least its first stage this week.  From press accounts like the one below from the Boston Globe, it seems like Obama is planning to send a direct letter to the Supreme Leader expressing his desire for a new approach.  While it’s likely such a letter will be short on details, the most important message to send is that the US is sincere about negotiating in good faith.

US may soon make overture to Iran leader
By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff  |  March 11, 2009
WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is leaning toward making a major diplomatic overture to Iran before the country’s presidential elections in June. This initiative could come in the form of a letter from President Obama to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to two senior European diplomats who have met in recent weeks with key State Department officials crafting a new US policy toward Iran.
The letter would be aimed at initiating talks over the Iranian nuclear program and Iran’s role in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
It would be the first formal communication between an American president and Iran’s leadership since Washington cut diplomatic ties with Tehran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
State Department officials yesterday declined to comment on their plans for changing Iran policy until they complete an ongoing review.
But on Monday, State Department acting spokesman Robert Wood told reporters: “We have offered our hand to the government of Iran, and we hope to be able to engage this government on a whole range of issues. But a lot of it’s going to depend on Iran and its willingness to engage and its willingness to change its behavior in a number of areas where we have concern.”
The State Department adviser on Iran, Dennis Ross, and the undersecretary of state for political affairs, William Burns, have been meeting with a steady steam of European allies and nonproliferation experts for advice on how best to approach Iran about possible talks.
US officials have already begun testing the waters of engagement. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that Iran would be invited to an upcoming multinational conference on Afghanistan, and Iranian officials have reportedly signaled that they will consider attending.
But some European officials have long warned that a major gesture toward Iran before the June presidential election risks influencing its outcome, perhaps improving the chances of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-liner who is running for reelection against three reformers. Ahmadinejad, whose bellicose statements have alienated Iran from the United States and other Western countries, might be able to claim credit for the rapprochement with Obama.
But others say that holding off on a diplomatic overture until after the election carries even bigger risks.
“It is a good idea to send the message that they are engaging a government and not an individual,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based group that advocates engagement. Writing to Khamenei makes sense because he will retain his powerful position as the nation’s top cleric regardless of who wins the presidency, Parsi said.
“If you wait, and it looks like you are waiting in the hopes that Ahmadinejad will lose, what happens if he doesn’t?” he said.
But Ahmad Sadri, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College in Illinois who is also a columnist for Etemade Melli, a reformist newspaper in Iran, said sending a letter to the reclusive supreme leader, rather than a democratically elected official, would be “the wrong thing to do.”
“It would send a message that we are going to wheel and deal with the powers that be rather than deal with those elected by the Iranian people,” Sadri said.
“For the supreme leader to come out and support something like this would be costly, because he has staked his entire career on opposing the US,” he said.
Last week, Khamenei said in a speech in Tehran that Obama’s strong support for Israel “means the same wrong path as the Bush administration.”
Obama has yet to reply to a letter sent by Ahmadinejad congratulating him – while also berating US policies. During last fall’s campaign, Obama said he would be willing to talk to Iran’s leaders and suggested that Ahmadinejad might not be the right leader to approach.
Ross, then an Obama adviser, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying that Khamenei is the only official inside Iran’s theocracy with the power to authorize the suspension of Iran’s nuclear program, and therefore that talks must be through a channel that leads to him.
The European diplomats, who have attended extensive meetings with US officials in recent weeks, said the Americans had shelved the idea of reopening a consular office in Tehran – an approach considered by the Bush administration. Officials concluded that the office might be a magnet for anti-American demonstrations, minimizing its impact.
Instead, they said, the administration is weighing how to swiftly open high-level talks in a way that doesn’t allow Iran to drag out negotiations while continuing to work on its nuclear program.
Another issue is ensuring that US officials sit down with an envoy who is authorized to negotiate. Specialists on Iran say the regime of clerics and elected officials is often paralyzed when it comes to making big decisions, because it is too difficult to reach consensus between Iran’s various powerful factions.
US and Israeli officials fear that the window for diplomacy is closing, as Iran marches toward perfecting the process of nuclear enrichment, which US officials believe is aimed at creating a bomb but which Iran insists is for peaceful purposes. Israeli officials have warned that they might launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities if Iran nears the ability to create a nuclear weapon.
Yesterday, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran had not produced enough weapons-grade uranium to fuel a nuclear weapon, but “at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop them.”

Back to top