TEHRAN — Iran’s leaders, seizing on perceived flexibility in a private letter from President Obama, have decided to gamble on forging a swift agreement over their nuclear program with the goal of ending crippling sanctions, a prominent adviser to the Iranian leadership said Thursday.
The adviser, who participated in top-level discussions of the country’s diplomatic strategy, said that Obama’s letter, delivered to Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, about three weeks ago, promised relief from sanctions if Tehran demonstrated a willingness to “cooperate with the international community, keep your commitments, and remove ambiguities.” The text of the letter has not been made public, but the adviser described its contents in an interview.
A senior US official did not dispute the general outlines of the letter as described by Amir Mohebbian, an Iranian political expert and longtime adviser to Iran’s top leaders. But the official said Obama had not promised Iran quick relief from sanctions and had steered clear of any detailed proposal.
The adviser and other officials and analysts said Iran was focused on getting quick relief from sanctions because the punishment has cut the country off from the international banking system and, in exchange, it might be willing to curb the nuclear enrichment program. Some in leadership are also worried that if nuclear talks do not yield quick results, Iran’s hard-line clerics and military men — currently sidelined — could attack Rouhani as a sellout and clip his wings.
The Iranian leadership was encouraged by what was described as Obama’s offer to conduct face-to-face talks, which they prefer to the more bureaucratic negotiating process with a group of five major world powers, Mohebbian said.
The 1½-page letter, which the Iranian president answered with a letter of similar length, has kindled hopes that the international charm offensive Iran began after Rouhani’s election in June may produce a diplomatic breakthrough. But the differing interpretations of Obama’s letter in Tehran and Washington are a reminder of the political hurdles and the legacy of mistrust that both sides will have to overcome in negotiating a deal.
The Iranian reaction to the letter provides critical insight into a decisive and unexpected shift in strategy by the moderate new president as Iran struggles to restore vitality to its economy and undo years of hostile relations with most of the world.