US President Barack Obama reportedly sent a secret letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month offering to work together against the Islamic State terror group in exchange for a deal on Tehran’s nuclear program.
The letter, reported on Thursday by the Wall Street Journal, 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 the Islamic State group, 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.
Refusing to deny or confirm the report, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said: “I’m not in a position to discuss private correspondence between the president and any world leader.”
Earnest said that on the sidelines of the nuclear talks, being led by a group of powers known as the P5+1, Iran and the US had discussed the Islamic State threat.
But he reiterated the US stand that “the United States will not cooperate militarily with Iran in that effort, we won’t share intelligence with them.”
There was no immediate reaction from Jerusalem.
In September, Khamenei claimed he had rejected a private approach from the United States suggesting cooperation on the battlefield.
US officials have not confirmed or denied making a request in private, but US Secretary of State John Kerry said at the time that there was a role for Iran in the battle against the Islamic State.
The talks are set to expire on November 24. Israel has raised fears that a possible deal could leave Iran with the ability to create a nuclear weapon.
On Thursday, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz flew to Paris to meet with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to lobby against a deal.
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.
Khamenei, a religious leader who has control over all Iran’s functions, has been openly critical of the US and Israel, calling for their destruction on several occasions.
“They stop at nothing. This is the reality of the Zionist regime. The only solution is to destroy this regime,” Khamenei said at a rally in July.
On Wednesday, Obama said it was an “open question” as to whether international negotiators and Iran can reach a deal over Tehran’s nuclear program. With the deadline looming, Obama said the next three to four weeks will be key.
“There’s a sizable portion of the political elite that cut their teeth on anti-Americanism,” Obama said Wednesday about the Iranian leadership. “Whether they can manage to say ’Yes’…is an open question.”
Many Republican leaders have criticized the administration’s desire to ease sanctions on Iran while the talks are underway, or to embrace any agreement that would allow Tehran to continue generating nuclear power. The upcoming deadline, therefore, could represent the last chance the White House will get at reaching a comprehensive agreement that would prevent Iran from being able to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear program is for civilian applications.
“Whether we can actually get a deal done, we’re going to have to find out over the next three to four weeks,” Obama said.
In Paris on Wednesday, Kerry dismissed questions about whether the Republicans’ command of Congress would derail the nuclear deal. He said the same sticking points would remain no matter which US political party was in power. “I don’t believe that changes either side,” he said.
The United States and Iran broke off diplomatic ties in 1980, but the two sides have both engaged in the multilateral negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are due to meet in Oman over the weekend in talks hosted by European Union foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.
A final session of talks is then due to take place in Vienna from November 18-24, and Kerry has stressed that the deadline would not be extended.
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.
On Thursday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, dismissed said a military strike against Iran would be unwise.
“We do have the capability — were we asked to use it — to address an Iranian nuclear capability,” said Dempsey.
“But… as we look at using the military instrument if necessary to address the Iranian nuclear issue, that would delay it, it will not eliminate it,” he told a forum at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“What really makes the nuclear capability of Iran an issue, is not centrifuges and ballistic missiles but rather the human capital that has the expertise to regenerate it,” Dempsey explained.
“We do have the capability to delay their nuclear enterprise by some number of years, which I won’t obviously articulate here.”