WASHINGTON -- Iran said Wednesday that it had received letters from President Barack Obama and had responded to them, for the first time acknowledging correspondence that the White House has declined to confirm publicly.
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, made an announcement about the letters on state-run television in Iran Wednesday night, according to the Associated Press.
Shamkhani said Obama's most recent message concerned the ongoing multilateral talks over Iran's nuclear program, the AP report said. The letter he was referencing is likely the one whose existence was revealed in a Wall Street Journal story last week. Shamkhani is an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who the Journal said was the recipient of Obama's recent letter.
"The letters of the American president have a history of some years, and in some instances, there have been responses to these letters," Shamkhani said the same day in a weekly meeting of national security officials, according to a transcript of the meeting reviewed by the Middle Eastern outlet Al-Monitor.
A White House spokeswoman, contacted by The Huffington Post, declined to comment on Shamkhani's claims.
Last week, after the Journal reported that Obama had written to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, about the nuclear negotiations, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters he could not comment on the president's personal correspondence.
But he added that the U.S. and Iran, in a sign of their improving relationship, had communicated about their respective campaigns against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
"[W]e won't share intelligence with them, but their interest in this outcome is something that's been widely commented upon and something that on a couple of occasions has been discussed on the sidelines of other conversations," Earnest said.
Senior administration officials confirmed the letter's existence to The New York Times the next day, though not on the record. The letter, they said, underscored the value to Iran of reaching a settlement with the international community on its nuclear program and therefore having sanctions against it lifted, and emphasized the common interest of the U.S. and Shiite leaders in Tehran in combating the Sunni extremists fighting for ISIS.
U.S. partners in the fight against ISIS, including a range of Sunni Arab states and the moderate Syrian rebels who Obama plans to train and equip, are wary of cooperation with Iran.
They argue that the U.S. has different goals from Iran in Syria: Iran is focused on keeping the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad afloat, while the Obama administration has consistently said that it will not work with Assad and that the civil war he has helped sustain is responsible for the rise of ISIS. U.S. cooperation with Iran in Iraq, meanwhile, is made increasingly difficult by reports that Shiite militias aligned with Tehran are brutalizing Iraqi Sunnis, who the U.S. hopes to win over as allies against the Islamic State.
The U.S. is currently negotiating with Iran about its nuclear program alongside five partners -- Russia, China, France, the U.K. and Germany. The group, the P5+1, is seeking to reach a final agreement with Iran by Nov. 24th. They just concluded a round of talks in Oman, with reports suggesting that major progress remains elusive, and will resume negotiations on Nov. 18 in Vienna. The key elements of a deal that remain at issue are how many centrifuges Iran will continue to operate to enrich uranium, how much transparency it will commit to on what it describes as a peaceful electricity-generating nuclear program and how rapidly international sanctions would be lifted.
If the Nov. 24 deadline passes, a temporary agreement from last year to lift some sanctions in exchange for Iran's curbing its uranium enrichment and permitting internationals scrutiny would expire -- and the rift between Tehran and the global community might grow irreversibly. The German foreign minister said yesterday that the negotiating process would be set back two years if the deadline passed without an agreement, and newly empowered Republicans in the U.S. have said they would try to impose new sanctions on Iran if there is no deal by the end of the month.
Iran experts disagree over whether Obama's letter was likely to aid the U.S. position in negotiations.
Brookings Institution scholar Suzanne Maloney argued in a blog post that the tactic suggested a U.S. misunderstanding of Iranian strategy and that Obama might "fumble a crucial arms control agreement near the finish line out of a misguided overconfidence in the power of his own prose."
But Alex Vatanka, an Iran scholar at the Middle East Institute, told The Huffington Post Wednesday that the letter might help if it is perceived as evidence of U.S. respect for the Ayatollah and that even if the Iranians saw it as a sign of U.S. desperation, they remained anxious to be free of sanctions -- and aware that the only way to lose those sanctions would be to make concessions as part of the deal.