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Iran Seeks Strategic Accommodation with Washington

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

By Stratfor

U.S. President Barack Obama asked for direct talks with Iran in a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to Ali Motahari, an Iranian lawmaker and member of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee. In an interview Wednesday with Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency, Motahari said the first half of the letter consisted of threats laying out actions that would be taken if Tehran crossed the "red line" of closing the energy-vital Strait of Hormuz; the second half included a request from Obama for direct talks with Iran. The official spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, Ramin Mehmanparast, confirmed that the letter had been received and added that Iran was deliberating a response. 

News of the supposedly secret letter first emerged last Friday, when The New York Times reported that the Obama administration was relying on a secret channel of communication to warn the supreme leader of Iran of the consequences of crossing the line in threatening the Strait of Hormuz. Two days later, Iranian media quoted Mehmanparast as confirming receipt of the U.S. letter. He also clarified the channels through which the letter was disseminated: Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, delivered the missive to her Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Khazaee. The Swiss ambassador to Tehran, Livia Leu Agosti, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani also conveyed a similar message to the Iranian leadership, according to Mehmanparsat.

An Unlikely Appeal

We find it odd that the Iranians waited until Wednesday, after news of the letter had already been released, to claim that Obama used the letter to appeal for direct talks with Iran. Meanwhile, Washington responded with cautious ambiguity to this specific claim. While denying to AP that the U.S. president had sent a letter to Khamenei, an unnamed Obama administration official did say the United States was using other diplomatic channels to communicate with Iran. In a similar statement, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor reiterated that the United States had a number of ways to communicate its views to the Iranian government and that the U.S. government remains committed to establishing a dialogue with Iran. In other words, the United States acknowledges it sent a letter to Iranian leadership through multiple diplomatic channels but denies that the U.S. president himself appealed for direct talks. It is reasonable to believe Obama would refrain from such an appeal: U.S.-Iranian back-channel negotiations have a poor track record, such negotiations do not usually begin at the presidential level, and a direct appeal for talks would invite criticism from his domestic political opponents in the middle of the presidential campaign season.

The subtleties surrounding this diplomatic correspondence matter a great deal in the context of the Persian Gulf's geopolitical climate. Now that the United States has withdrawn from Iraq, Iran is trying to exploit Washington's reduced military footprint in the region. Tehran wants to convey to its adversaries that accommodating Iran is in their best interest. The best way for Iran to get this message across is to highlight the threat Tehran can pose to the Strait of Hormuz. This explains the timing of Iran's 10-day military maneuvers that centered on the strait and began on Christmas Day.

It appears that the Iranian plan is starting to get results. The United States is admitting to opening up a dialogue with the Iranian leadership, with the ultimate aim of avoiding a military conflict in the Strait of Hormuz. The question now is how far the Iranian leadership can go in negotiating with the United States.

Opportunities and Constraints

Iran clearly has the upper hand in Iraq and holds a valuable deterrent to attack -- its ability to threaten the Strait of Hormuz -- but Tehran is also operating under considerable constraints. The U.S.-led sanctions regime is making day-to-day business for Iran increasingly difficult, forcing Iran to contrive more elaborate and creative mechanisms to maintain trade ties with demanding foreign clients. Iran is likely trying to exploit Shiite unrest in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province, but Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council state allies are doing everything they can to block Iran. Although they haven't been able to stamp out the unrest, these states seem capable of mitigating Iranian meddling. Finally, in Syria, the Iranian regime can take comfort in the fact that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is thus far surviving. But Iran also wants to avoid a situation in which countries looking to limit Tehran's influence -- the United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, among others -- find enough reason to devote a surge of resources toward bringing down the al Assad regime, potentially depriving Iran of its foothold in the Levant.

But the United States also faces a number of constraints in trying to contain Iran. Washington has essentially ceded victory to the Iranians in Iraq, where Tehran has maintained the upper hand in managing the state's chaotic affairs. The last thing the United States wants is a military confrontation with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the Strait of Hormuz -- a conflict that would send oil prices soaring and exacerbate already fragile global economic conditions. The United States would like to see Iran lose its ally in Syria, but it does not want to commit the military resources to ensure the regime's toppling and does not want to risk sparking a broader sectarian conflict in the region. Further east, the United States is trying to negotiate a complicated deal with the Taliban, and Washington knows that the Iranians hold a number of levers with stakeholders in Afghanistan that could attempt to derail that deal.

The constraints each side faces have created room for diplomatic discussions to take place between rivals that have employed descriptors such as "Great Satan" and "Axis of Evil" to characterize each other. This wouldn't be the first time such a dialogue has been attempted, and there is no guarantee that this will go beyond a truce. Such a truce would entail both sides agreeing not to cross each other's red lines. For Iran, that red line is a U.S. military strike. For the United States, it is Iran's attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz. 

Regardless whether this dialogue commences, or which direction it takes, the Iranians benefit greatly from simple public knowledge of this letter. The best way for Iran to put its Saudi neighbors on edge is to spread the idea that the Americans are reaching out to Tehran for a deal. This may explain why Iran belatedly claimed that Obama appealed for direct talks in the letter. Saudi Arabia already doubts Washington's reliability as a security guarantor in the region, following the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq. If the Saudis think the Americans are trying to negotiate with Iran unilaterally, Riyadh may even feel compelled to negotiate with its Persian adversary itself, just to keep up. A rush to the negotiating table is exactly what Iran wants to foment. Whether Iran can use this nascent diplomatic process to hit Tehran's aim of achieving a strategic accommodation with Washington is, of course, another question entirely.

This article reprinted by permission of Stratfor

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