Tensions Muddle U.S.-Iran Nuclear Dialogue

kerry Zarif Oman
kerry Zarif Oman
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) shake hands as Omani Minister Responsible for Foreign Affairs Yussef bin Alawi (2nd R) and former EU top diplomat Catherine Ashton watch in Muscat on November 9, 2014. (photo credit: AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM/POOL)

Iran sent signals that it was open to overtures in a recent letter from U.S. President Barack Obama as talks kicked off here on Sunday, but tensions in both nations’ capitals are complicating attempts to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program as a diplomatic deadline approaches.

Iranian officials confirmed that Mr. Obama reached out directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a mid-October letter that emphasized shared interests in combating the Islamist militants who have seized territory in Iraq and Syria.

But responses from Tehran suggested continued divisions inside Iran’s leadership on how to respond to the U.S. Adding unpredictability are last week’s U.S. midterm elections, in which Republicans took control of the Senate. Lawmakers have said that could clear the way for long-stalled legislation that would crack down on Iran and add to the weight of U.S. sanctions.

Mr. Obama cast doubt on what had been growing optimism in Washington and Europe about the prospects for a comprehensive deal in an interview with CBS News that aired on Sunday.

“The question now is are we going to be able to close the final gap so that they can re-enter the international community,” Mr. Obama said. “There’s still a big gap. We may not be able to get there.”

Mr. Obama declined to confirm or deny he sent a letter to Mr. Khamenei, Iran’s most powerful political and religious figure. “I tend not to comment on any communications that I have with various leaders,” he said.

The likely incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), accused the White House of tying cooperation with Iran on Islamic State to the nuclear negotiations by writing the letter in mid-October. Mr. Obama denied such a link in the interview.

“Of course, the negotiations with Iran are affecting the administration’s approach to the region, especially in Syria,” Mr. Corker said.

The developments came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held more than five hours of direct talks on Sunday with his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, in a bid to secure an agreement limiting Tehran’s nuclear program by the Nov. 24 deadline.

U.S. and Iranian officials who participated in the negotiations in the Omani capital declined to brief the media on the status of the talks, which will continue on Monday.

Senior U.S. officials have said the Obama administration will likely know by the end of the meetings whether an agreement can be reached before the deadline. American officials have said in recent days that an extension could be negotiated if they are unable to forge a final agreement.

Mr. Obama wrote to Mr. Khamenei to stress that the U.S. and Iran had shared interests in combating Islamic State, said people briefed on the letter.

Mr. Obama also urged the Iranian leader to support a nuclear agreement with the West, saying Iran would benefit from the reduction of sanctions and a reintegration with Western economies.

Ali Khoram, an adviser to Mr. Zarif, was the first Iranian official to confirm the reception of the letter, which was revealed by The Wall Street Journal in an article on Thursday.

Mr. Khoram told the Arabic daily, Asharq al-Aswat, that Mr. Obama’s outreach could aid the nuclear diplomacy and the U.S.’s campaign against Islamic State. The October letter is believed to be the fourth Mr. Obama has sent to Iran’s supreme leader since taking office in 2009.

“These diplomatic correspondences have had a positive impact on Iran’s top leadership and are essential in changing attitudes to reach an agreement, although the [latest] letter is solely concerned with mutual interests in combating [ISIS],” Mr. Khoram said.

Mr. Khoram’s comments, though, contrasted sharply with coverage of Mr. Obama’s letter by news organizations associated with hard-line groups hostile toward rapprochement with Washington, said Iran watchers.

Mr. Khamenei’s official website reposted an article this weekend by the conservative Kayhan newspaper in which the author makes the claim that Mr. Obama’s previous letters to the supreme leader were followed by hostile American actions, according to Al Monitor, a U.S.-based news site that closely tracks Iranian media.

The article specifically cited U.S. support for antigovernment protesters in 2009 and the implementation of new sanctions against Iran in 2013. It also cited a 2009 quote from Mr. Khamenei: “Iran does not trust America. Underneath their velvet gloves, they have hidden iron hands.”

Mr. Khameni’s website doesn’t officially acknowledge the receipt of the Obama letter.

Diplomats in Tehran and at Iran’s United Nations mission declined to comment on Mr. Khoram’s statement. Mr. Khamenei’s foreign-affairs adviser, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian state media that he wasn’t aware of Mr. Obama’s outreach.

Republican lawmakers in Washington, along with Israeli and Arab leaders, have sharply attacked the letter in recent days.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that the U.S. was naive to believe it could work with Iran on national security issues. He said his government wouldn’t acknowledge a nuclear accord with Tehran that didn’t drastically curtail Tehran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel.

“Remarks to the effect that Iran has moderated are overshadowed by Iran’s actual policies,” Mr. Netanyahu said before his government’s cabinet meeting on Sunday. “Israel will not countenance an agreement that leaves Iran as a nuclear threshold state. This endangers us all.”

The Republicans’ coming control of the U.S. Senate could significantly undermine Mr. Obama’s ability to implement any agreement signed with Tehran, U.S. lawmakers said.

Republican senators say they believe they could gain the number of votes from both parties to pass new economic sanctions on Tehran that could overcome a veto by Mr. Obama. They also said they could use their majority in the Senate to force a vote on any agreement, something the White House has said it doesn’t need.

European diplomats said the political shifts in Washington could lead Iran’s leadership to believe their only chance to get sanctions relief is to cut an agreement with Mr. Obama now. Plunging oil prices in recent months have made Tehran’s finances even more precarious, they say.

Iran, the U.S. and other global powers are seeking to agree on a formula that would assure the international community that Tehran isn’t seeking to develop atomic weapons while still allowing in to develop a civilian nuclear program.

In turn, the U.S. and European Union would be required to loosen economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s finances in recent years.

The main sticking points, U.S. and European officials say, are the future size of Iran’s nuclear capacity and the speed at which the Western sanctions would be removed.

The Obama administration has sought to significantly limit Tehran’s ability to produce nuclear fuel through the enrichment of uranium.

U.S. officials have said Iran should only be allowed to maintain a few thousand centrifuge machines used to enrich uranium, while Iranian leaders have said they will eventually need hundreds of thousands.

Other issues that remain in dispute are the future of an Iranian heavy-water reactor that would be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. The U.S. and its diplomatic allies are also seeking to drastically reduce Iran’s stockpile of material that can be used to fuel weapons.

The U.S. says it believes Iran has a clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons, which Tehran has repeatedly denied.

Oman has played a central role in a growing rapprochement between Iran and the U.S. over the past year.

Muscat was the scene of a string of secret talks between senior Iranian and American officials starting in 2012. They marked the beginning of the highest-level diplomatic contacts between Washington and Tehran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.