President Obama’s reported outreach to Iran to beseech the Islamic Republic to think about shared interests in fighting ISIS is raising eyebrows in Congress, where criticism of the administration is mounting over Obama’s reluctance to bring a nuclear deal before lawmakers.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Obama secretly wrote to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last month, with the dual purpose of getting help on fighting ISIS and paving the way toward the Nov. 24 P5+1 nuclear-deal deadline.
Khamenei has declared that Iran will never give up its nuclear program.
The report emerged a few days before Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to meet with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in Oman.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters today that he’s “not in a position to discuss private correspondence between the president and any world leader.”
“I can tell you that the policy that the president and his administration have articulated about Iran remains unchanged. The United States is engaged in conversations with Iran in the context of the P5+1 talks to resolve the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program,” Earnest said.
“And we have also discussed on the sidelines of those talks on at least a couple of occasions, the ongoing campaign that is being conducted against ISIL by the United States and 60 members of — now more than 60 members who are part of this broader coalition,” he continued.
“The United States will not cooperate militarily with Iran in that effort. We won’t share intelligence with them. But their interests in the outcome is something that’s been widely commented on — commented upon and something that on a couple of occasions has been discussed on the sidelines of other conversations.”
Still, when pressed, Earnest would not confirm or deny that the correspondence had taken place.
The spokesman said there wasn’t a lack of transparency in sneaking a letter to the ayatollah because “the fact of the matter is there are also secret conversations between the administration and Congress about our negotiating strategy with Iran.”
“I’m not saying that we’re going to read them in after we cut a deal. I’m saying that we’ve been reading them in as we’ve been trying to negotiate this deal.”
Regarding ISIS, Earnest stressed “it’s not in the interest of Iran or, frankly, nobody else in this region of the world to have this extremist group rampaging across the countryside, carrying out terrible acts of violence.”
“We do seek to — or at least we have on a couple of occasions, sought to engage them on the sidelines of other talks to make sure that they understand what we’re trying to do here, and to get a sense about their perspective on things.”
State Department press secretary Jen Psaki was even more mum about the letter. “Anyone above the secretary, I assume you’re referring to the president,” she said. “So certainly, I’m not going to answer or address questions on that.”
Psaki said they’ve “obviously” discussed ISIS on the sidelines of nuclear talks.
“But in terms of working with them, I don’t think — I wouldn’t see it as a prerequisite” to a nuclear deal, she said. “We’re not at the point of doing that, and there’s no plans to coordinate with them militarily.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said there’s reason to cast deep skepticism on both the letter and the nuclear deal.
“Listen, I don’t trust the Iranians. I don’t think that we need to bring them into this,” Boehner told reporters today.
“And I would hope that the negotiations that are underway are serious negotiations. But I have my doubts.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said after Boehner’s remarks that he’s “skeptical of the Iranians as well, and I’m not sure that they’ve made the decision that they’re prepared for the sacrifices they’d have to undertake, that they’re prepared to give up the bulk of their enrichment program.”
“So I’m skeptical we’ll get a deal. I’m skeptical that the Iranian leadership, the Ayatollah is prepared to deliver,” Schiff said.
The House Intelligence Committee chairman, Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), quipped that the administration “is working their way up” to “a confusing policy in Syria and Iraq.”
“Think about where Iran is today. They are bad actors in Yemen, Bahrain. They are bad actors in Iraq. They have U.S. soldiers’ blood on their hands during the time that we were in Iraq and the Department of Defense certainly confirms that,” Rogers said. “This is not — this is not a nation-state you want to get in bed with. If you do that, somebody is not going to get a good night’s sleep.”
“This is dangerous stuff that they’re doing. And I hope that the administration reconsiders. I argue it’s almost reckless. The enemy of our enemy isn’t necessarily our friend, certainly in this case.”
At his Wednesday press conference, Obama danced around a question on implementing an agreement with Iran without coming to Congress.
“Whether we can actually get a deal done, we’re going to have to find out over the next three to four weeks. We have presented to them a framework that would allow them to meet their peaceful energy needs,” he said.
Obama argued he could repeal “a series of different sanctions” unilaterally, including ones imposed unilaterally.
“But I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. What I want to do is see if in fact, we have a deal,” the president said. “If we do have a deal that I have confidence will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and that we can convince the world and the public will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, then, you know, it’ll be time to engage in Congress.”
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) noted that Obama consistently says he’ll hold out for a good deal with Iran, but can’t define what that entails.
“The president speaks of verifiable mechanisms and monitoring, but the reality is that we have no way of fully monitoring or accurately verifying Iran’s nuclear activities. The only way to verify Iran is not conducting any illicit nuclear activity is if Iran’s nuclear program is completely shut down,” said Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee. “Many of us in Congress believe that the only acceptable deal with Iran would see the regime cease all enrichment and dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.”