Adviser: Obama letter moves Iran to consider nuclear accord
Amir Mohebbian and other officials and analysts said Iran was focused on getting quick relief from financial sanctions because they have cut it off from the international banking system, and in exchange might be willing to curb its nuclear-enrichment program.
The New York Times
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s leaders, seizing on perceived flexibility in a private letter from President Obama, have decided to gamble on forging a swift agreement over their nuclear program with the goal of ending crippling sanctions, a prominent adviser to the Iranian leadership said Thursday.
The adviser, Amir Mohebbian, who participated in top-level discussions of the country’s diplomatic strategy, said Obama’s letter, delivered to Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, about three weeks ago, promised relief from sanctions if the government demonstrated a willingness to “cooperate with the international community, keep your commitments and remove ambiguities.” The text of the letter has not been made public, but Mohebbian described its contents Thursday.
A senior U.S. official did not dispute the general outlines of the letter as described by Mohebbian, an Iranian political expert and longtime adviser to Iran’s top leaders. But the official said Obama had not promised Iran quick relief from sanctions and had steered clear of any detailed proposal.
Mohebbian and other officials and analysts said Iran was focused on getting quick relief from financial sanctions because they have cut it off from the international banking system, and in exchange might be willing to curb its nuclear-enrichment program. Some in the leadership are also worried that, if nuclear talks do not yield quick results, Iran’s hard-line clerics and military men — currently sidelined — could attack Rouhani as a sellout and clip his wings.
The Iranian leadership was encouraged by what was described as Obama’s offer to conduct face-to-face talks, which they prefer to the more bureaucratic and lengthy negotiating process with a group of five major world powers, Mohebbian said.
The 1 ½ -page letter, which the Iranian president answered with a letter of similar length, has kindled hopes that the international charm offensive Iran began after Rouhani’s election in June may produce a genuine diplomatic breakthrough. But the differing interpretations of Obama’s letter in Tehran and Washington are a reminder of the political hurdles and the legacy of mistrust that both sides will have to overcome in negotiating a deal.
The U.S. official said Obama had congratulated Rouhani on his election, and characterized the vote as an opportunity for change. But on sanctions, the official said, the Iranians were inferring relief from the president’s more general pledge to resolve issues and move forward. And while Obama was open to direct talks, the official said, they would not necessarily be leader-to-leader.
The Iranian reaction to the letter provides insight into an unexpected shift in strategy by the moderate new president as Iran struggles to restore vitality to its economy and undo years of hostile relations with most of the world under the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The overtures to the United States are part of a flurry of steps altering the trajectory of the Iranian state, including domestic liberalizations and returning the politically powerful military to the barracks — for now. Those actions, along with the changed diplomatic tone, have convinced some experts that the changes are more than cosmetic.
Rouhani will present Iran’s new face to world next week with an address to the U.N. General Assembly, an evening speech to the Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society, and a television interviews with Charlie Rose and CNN.
In an opinion article published in The Washington Post on Friday, Rouhani said world leaders should “seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election.”
“I urge them to make the most of the mandate for prudent engagement that my people have given me and to respond genuinely to my government’s efforts to engage in constructive dialogue,” he wrote.
Skeptics pointed out that Obama has reached out to Iran before. Having promised as a candidate to extend an olive branch to old enemies, he sent a letter early in his first term to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, proposing a new diplomatic chapter. In his reply, Khamenei did not take Obama up on his offer.
Their correspondence was cut short after Iran’s disputed presidential election in June 2009 unleashed a popular uprising. The ensuing bloody crackdown all but snuffed out diplomacy for the next year. Ahmadinejad, re-elected as president, wrote a lengthy letter to Obama in 2010, but it did nothing to break the diplomatic ice.
This time Obama’s letter found a receptive audience, which apparently, and crucially, includes for the first time Khamenei. Mohebbian said he had been present at an official meeting of the leadership at which the letter was read aloud and discussed by someone from “the highest levels” of Iran’s political establishment, terminology that usually describes the office of the supreme leader.
This is the first time Obama has written directly to an Iranian president, and not the supreme leader, suggesting that the White House believes Khamenei has empowered Rouhani to seek an opening with the West.
In a sharp break with previous letter exchanges, both presidents have publicly lauded their correspondence. Rouhani said in an NBC News interview broadcast Wednesday that the tone of Obama’s letter was “positive and constructive.” He added, “It could be subtle and tiny steps for a very important future.”
Obama, speaking Tuesday to the Spanish-language network Telemundo, said there were indications that Rouhani “is somebody who is looking to open dialogue with the West and with the United States, in a way that we haven’t seen in the past. And so we should test it.”