October Surprise: Obama Sends Khamenei another Letter

November 11, 2014

Publication Type: 

  • Policy Briefs


Gary Milhollin and Valerie Lincy

On November 6, the Wall Street Journal reported that in mid-October, U.S. President Barack Obama sent Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a secret letter.  The Journal said that according to its sources, the letter described the common interest the United States and Iran have in combatting the wave of brutal jihadists operating in Iraq and Syria, known as “ISIS,” “ISIL,” or the “Islamic State.”  The Journal also said the letter stressed that any cooperation against the jihadists would depend on reaching a deal with Iran in the current nuclear talks by November 24, when the talks are due to end.

Speaking with reporters in Beijing on November 8, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not affirm or deny the existence of the letter, but said that “the nuclear negotiations are on their own,” and that “there is no linkage whatsoever of the nuclear discussions with any other issue.”  A day later, the Journal reported that Ali Khoram, an adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, confirmed the correspondence from President Obama; Mr. Khoram said the letter focused on shared interests in combatting Islamist extremists.

Beginning on Sunday November 9, Secretary Kerry, Foreign Minister Zarif, and European Union negotiator Catherine Ashton met in Oman for two days of nuclear talks aimed at breaking the deadlock.  The talks ended with no discernible progress.  During a November 10 press briefing, a State Department spokesperson described the latest talks as “tough, direct, and serious,” and said that both sides were “continuing to chip away at a very challenging issue.”

The number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to operate and the amount of low-enriched uranium gas that will remain in Iran’s stockpile are two of the challenging issues at the heart of the talks.  According to a New York Times report on November 3, Iran has tentatively agreed to ship its stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia, for conversion into power reactor fuel rods.  (Iranian officials quickly rejected that such a concession had been made.)  And the Los Angeles Times –quoting the official Iranian website irannuc.ir – reported on November 4 that the United States would be willing to allow Iran to operate 6,000 centrifuges if Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium were reduced. 

Also last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency released its most recent quarterly report on Iran’s nuclear status.  The Agency warned that Iran still had not explained suspicious work it had done on the initiation of high explosives and on neutron transport calculations – both needed to make nuclear weapons.  The Agency also reported that Iran had accumulated 8,390 kilograms of low-enriched uranium gas as of October, a net increase since August and enough to fuel approximately eight atomic bombs if further enriched.  On the bright side, the Agency confirmed that Iran had converted all of its higher enriched uranium gas into oxide or had blended it down to a lower enrichment.  Both steps increase the time it would take to turn the higher enriched material into bomb fuel.  In addition, Iran had granted the Agency “managed access” to workshops and storage areas for centrifuges.