An expert's point of view on a current event.

Pen-Palling With the Ayatollah

Only ideologues and the ignorant don't understand that Obama's letter to Khamenei is just pragmatic politics.

By , the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images​
Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images​

If wearing a tan suit at a press conference is enough to bring on a deluge of criticism, President Barack Obama probably shouldn’t be surprised that sending a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made some heads spin. That’s too bad. Obama’s letter to Khamenei just points out the obvious: that Iran and the United States share a common interest in defeating the Islamic State and that real cooperation cannot take place until the nuclear issue is resolved.

The real outrage is that communicating with key players in the Middle East in order to advance U.S. security is still considered outrageous in far too many policy and political circles in Washington. The "outrage" Sen. John McCain has expressed reminds us why the American public over and over again has rejected McCain’s foreign-policy vision. 

It’s not as if President George W. Bush didn’t understand the importance of Iran to regional politics. His administration started secret negotiations with Tehran after 9/11 and coordinated with Iran both in the military campaign against the Taliban and subsequently in the campaign to establish a new constitution for Afghanistan. Once Tehran’s help no longer was deemed necessary, Bush put Iran in the "Axis of Evil" and ruined the opportunity for the United States to collaborate with Iran for years to come. Incidentally, not long thereafter, Iran and the United States ended up competing in Iraq and Afghanistan, which in turn rendered the stabilization of these two countries all the more difficult.

Some were angered by the letter to Ayatollah Khamenei because Obama didn’t get "approval" from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah first. But the president of the United States has no obligation to seek permission from Israel, Saudi Arabia, or any other country when it comes to advancing his country’s security.

The emergence of the so-called Islamic State threatens the very foundation of the state system in the Middle East. Despite their many faults, the reality is that strong states in the Middle East are less dangerous to each other and to their populations than failed states. The Islamic State’s success wouldn’t just turn the Middle East into a region with failed states; it would turn it into a failed region. Such a problem could not easily be contained. Spillover effects into Europe, Central Asia, and beyond are all but certain. Every policymaker in the Middle East — and in the West — realizes this.

The United States cannot and should not shoulder the responsibility for stopping the Islamic State alone. Nor can U.S. bombs alone pave a path out of the Middle East’s perilous situation. Real cooperation and coordination is needed between key players. Iran — the Middle East’s second-largest country by population and a major influence on the Shiite Muslim world — is one of these key players. Moreover, Iran shares 900 miles of border with Iraq and has good relations with governments in both Baghdad and Damascus. Like it or not, Iran is an unavoidable player in the fight against the Islamic State.

In fact, according to both the Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government, Iran was the first country to provide support for the fight against the Islamic State by sending both weaponry and advisors. Recently, pictures surfaced of Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, posing with Kurdish Peshmerga forces after having wrestled several Iraqi villages out of the hands of the Islamic State.

But if Obama realizes that he needs Iran as a kind of ally in Iraq right now, he also has his eye on a longer-term strategy — certainly far more than Bush did. Republicans claim that by raising the issue of the Islamic State with the Iranians, the president has weakened the United States’ hand in the nuclear talks. In reality, the changing regional context has made continuing enmity with the United States — on the nuclear issue and more — harder for the Iranians to keep up. A door could be opening for a broader understanding between the two countries.

According to press accounts, the letter made clear that the mutually beneficial collaboration between the United States and Iran against the Islamic State could only take place once the ongoing dispute over Iran’s nuclear program has been resolved. As an added incentive for Iran to agree to intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities and strong limitations on its enrichment program, Obama raised the prospects of expanded collaboration on areas of mutual interest.

Tehran’s need to stop the Islamic State’s rampage across the neighborhood gives Obama leverage. I had a lengthy conversation with a top Iranian official only a few days after Mosul fell to the Islamic State jihadists in July of this year. He told me that even the Supreme Leader, known to be more hard-line than the government of President Hassan Rouhani, agrees that neither the United States nor Israel constitutes the main threat to Iran’s security at this point. Sunni jihadists and the spread of sectarianism shine brightest on Iran’s threat radar, not only because a region defined by the Sunni-Shiite rift is one in which the majority of Iran’s neighbors would become its enemies, but also because sectarianism can unravel Iran’s internal ethnic and religious balance.

The Iranian official readily admitted that Iran could not on its own defeat the Islamic State, lest it add fuel to the sectarian fire. At the same time, neither the United States nor Iraq can fight back the Islamic State on their own. Only through broad collaboration could this common threat be defeated, the official said. But, he added, Tehran has to make up its mind, pointing to the debate in Iran on whether a nuclear deal should open the door for better relations with Washington.

But this is exactly what those stirring the pot in Washington fear the most. Iran is simply too valuable of an enemy. A nuclear accord that eliminates an Iranian path to a bomb and helps reorient Iran toward a more constructive relationship with the United States is too much to stomach for those who have spent the better half of the last two decades systematically pushing the United States and Iran to the brink of war. Some simply fear peace more than they fear war. To them, the idea of losing an enemy in the Middle East is unpalatable.

And that’s the real controversy. Thinking that a peaceful Middle East is something to avoid at all costs makes anger over a tan suit look pretty reasonable.

Trita Parsi is the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Twitter: @tparsi