Iran says it responded to several letters by Obama

Tehran ‘can’t accept decorative nuclear industry,’ top official tells US president, whose latest missive suggested cooperation on IS contingent on reaching nuclear deal

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in June, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Office of the Supreme Leader)
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in June, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Office of the Supreme Leader)

TEHRAN, Iran — A top security official in Iran said Wednesday the Islamic Republic has written back in response to letters sent by US President Barack Obama, the first acknowledgement of such correspondence. However, it’s not clear whether Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wrote the letters himself.

The letter writing is part of a recent thaw in relations between the two countries since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the US-backed shah and the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran, where 52 Americans were held hostage for more than a year. It also comes as a US-led coalition battles the Islamic State terror group in neighboring Iraq and as Iran and world powers negotiate a permanent deal regarding the country’s contested nuclear program.

“This is not the first time that such a thing has taken place,” said Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, during an appearance on state television Wednesday night. “It had previously taken place and necessary response was given to some of them.”

Obama’s recent letter to Khamenei described a shared interest between the US and Iran in fighting Islamic State militants and stressed that any cooperation on that would be largely contingent on Iran agreeing to the nuclear deal, according to the Wall Street Journal. Shamkhani said the letter “mainly focused on nuclear issues.”

We responded “that we can’t accept at all to have a decorative, caricaturistic nuclear industry,” Shamkhani said.

The letter was sent without informing Israel or other Middle Eastern allies, according to unnamed sources familiar with the correspondence cited by the paper.

In the missive, Obama describes a shared interest in working against IS, which has seized wide swaths of Iraq and Syria, drawing a military response from a US-led coalition.

However, he said that joint operations against the group, which Iran views as a threat, could only take place after Tehran and six world powers came to a final agreement on curbing the country’s nuclear program.

Iran’s Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, the country’s former top nuclear negotiator, criticized the US Tuesday, asking why Obama “uses bullying words against Iran when he speaks to the media, but picks up a very friendly and kindly tone when he writes a letter [to Khamenei],” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted him as saying.

The letter to Khamenei was the fourth from Obama since he took office in 2009, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Obama has presided over something of a cold detente with Iran over the nuclear talks after decades of hostility, though ties between Washington and Tehran have remained chilly at best.

There was no immediate response in Washington to Shamkhani’s comments.

On Monday, the London Times reported that the US and Iran held secret talks in Azerbaijan to potentially renew diplomatic ties if a nuclear deal between world powers and Tehran to curb Iran’s atomic program is reached and sanctions are lifted.

The talks focused on the opening of a US trade office in Tehran, according to the report, which means that the two countries were set renew relations for the first time in 35 years.

Iran and six world powers — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany — are negotiating a final nuclear accord now. The stakes are high as the two sides face a November 24 deadline. A deal is supposed to put in place measures that would prevent Iran from making an atomic weapon in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Iran has said its program is for peaceful purposes.

The West accuses Iran of seeking to develop the nuclear weapons under the guise of a peaceful civilian energy program. Israel in the past has raised the threat of military action to prevent Iran from getting the bomb, while Washington has left its options open.

The talks reportedly remain stuck over the size and output of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, a technology that can be used to produce nuclear fuel or nuclear weapons and how the sanctions must be lifted.

Obama on Sunday said a “big gap” remains in international nuclear negotiations with Iran and he questioned whether talks would succeed.

US Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met in Oman over the weekend in talks hosted by European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

A final session of talks is due to take place in Vienna from November 18-24.

US and Iranian officials held a series of secret meetings last year that ultimately paved the way for the historic interim nuclear deal in Geneva. Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also held a historic phone call last fall, the first direct communication between their nation’s leaders since the Islamic Revolution.

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