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Secret White House Letter Highlights Iran’s Importance to Islamic State Fight

The Obama administration’s escalating campaign against the Islamic State has left the United States in the strange and uncomfortable position of working with Russia to prop up the beleagured Iraqi military and forging a de facto alliance with Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, who is battling the Islamic State on the ground while the United States ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Obama administration’s escalating campaign against the Islamic State has left the United States in the strange and uncomfortable position of working with Russia to prop up the beleagured Iraqi military and forging a de facto alliance with Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, who is battling the Islamic State on the ground while the United States bombs the militants from the air.

But Thursday’s disclosure of a secret White House letter to Tehran is a reminder that the fight against the militants can’t be won without Iran -- and that the president is willing to privately make moves that seem to be at odds with the public comments of one of his top advisors.

The letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was first disclosed Thursday by the Wall Street Journal and then confirmed by a person familiar with its contents. In the letter, President Barack Obama told Khamenei that the expansion of the Islamic State posed a threat to both the United States and Iran and said the two countries were battling a common enemy, the official told Foreign Policy.

The Obama administration’s escalating campaign against the Islamic State has left the United States in the strange and uncomfortable position of working with Russia to prop up the beleagured Iraqi military and forging a de facto alliance with Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, who is battling the Islamic State on the ground while the United States bombs the militants from the air.

But Thursday’s disclosure of a secret White House letter to Tehran is a reminder that the fight against the militants can’t be won without Iran — and that the president is willing to privately make moves that seem to be at odds with the public comments of one of his top advisors.

The letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was first disclosed Thursday by the Wall Street Journal and then confirmed by a person familiar with its contents. In the letter, President Barack Obama told Khamenei that the expansion of the Islamic State posed a threat to both the United States and Iran and said the two countries were battling a common enemy, the official told Foreign Policy.

It didn’t explicitly propose that the two countries directly coordinate their military activities, a step the White House has said that it is not prepared to take. Still, the person familiar with the letter said that was the “strong implication.”

The disclosure of the letter is likely to raise the political pressure on the White House, which is already coming under fire from lawmakers in both parties concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran in order to strike a landmark nuclear deal before a Nov. 24 deadline.

It also raises new questions about the precise contours of the White House’s Iran policy. Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last month, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said the U.S. wasn’t working with Iran on the fight against the Islamic State.

"We are not in coordination or direct consultation with the Iranians about any aspect of the fight against ISIL," Rice said, using an alternate acronym for the jihadist group. "It is a fact that, in Iraq, they also are supporting the Iraqis against ISIL, but we are not coordinating. We are doing this very differently and independently."

Obama’s letter proposing that the two countries cooperate in the fight against the Islamic State would seem to be, at minimum, a strong step towards direct consultation with Tehran, but White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told Foreign Policy that “there is no change to our Iran policy as articulated by NSA Rice on ‘Meet the Press.’”

Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the United States "will not cooperate militarily" or share intelligence with Iran.

There, too, the United States has left itself considerable wriggle room. U.S. military officials in Iraq acknowledge that they communicate with their Iran counterparts by using the Iraqi military to pass messages back and forth between the two nominal adversaries.

In the meantime, news of the secret letter is already playing poorly in the Israeli media. Hours after the Wall Street Journal posted its report, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz ran a story under the headline “Obama sent letter to Khamenei behind Israel’s back.”

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