Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei about Fighting ISIS; Khamenei Is Counting on Suleimani, Not US Cooperation

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. An Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  He has achieved some success.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhrani said Iran would consider working with the US against ISIS if it sees the US begin to confront the terrorists.

According to a November 6, 2014 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei About Fighting Islamic States”, in October 2014, US President Barack Obama sent a highly confidential communication to Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The letter to Khamenei appeared directed at both bolstering the anti-ISIS campaign and prodding him toward a nuclear deal.  Those briefed on the letter familiarize the Wall Street Journal of its content.  Obama apparently wrote to Khamenei that expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) posed a threat to both the US and Iran, creating a common enemy for both countries. Obama stressed that both had the goal of defeating ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.  While Obama did not recognize Iran as the primary power in the region, as Tehran insists, he acknowledged in a way that Iran was “important” to his military and diplomatic campaign to push ISIS from territory it has gained in past months and dubbed the Islamic Caliphate.  Obama ostensibly sought to mitigate Tehran’s concerns over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  Although the US is arming and training Syrian opposition rebels, Obama apparently wrote in his letter that US military operations in Syria were not targeted at Assad or his security forces.  Those familiar with the letter explained Obama did not explicitly propose that the US and Iran coordinate their military activities.  However, they said there was a strong implication that coordination was desired.  Concerning the nuclear negotiations, Obama informed Khamenei that cooperation on ISIS was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China plus Germany) on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by November 24, 2014 deadline.  That point in the letter seemed to also imply cooperation would be more to Iran’s benefit.

News of Obama’s letter to Khamenei was somewhat confusing in the US given past statements by the administration on Iran.  When US National Security Adviser Susan Rice was asked on NBCNews “Meet the Press” on October 12, 2014, if Iran was providing help to the anti-ISIS coalition, she said “No!” Rice went on to state “We’re not in coordination or direct consultation with the Iranians about any aspects of the fight against ISIL [ISIS].  It is a fact that in Iraq, they are also supporting the Iraqis against ISIL [ISIS].  But we are not coordinating.  We’re doing this very differently and independently.”  Yet, despite Rice’s statement, Obama’s letter proposing the two countries cooperate in the anti-ISIS fight seems to be, at minimum, a move towards direct consultation with Tehran.  In the US Congress, Obama’s decision to send the letter revealed what the administration is saying about Iran may be different from its plans for Iran. Republican and Democrat Members of Congress are concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran on a nuclear deal.  Members likely also sense the administration is uncertain of how to proceed regarding ISIS, having pledged not to commit ground troops for combat operations.  While willing to support the anti-ISIS fight with funding, they will likely wants to reign in what they see as Obama’s perilous approach toward Iran.

For leaders, discerning how to proceed on foreign policy is made more difficult in adverse circumstances.  Some choices that may appear wise are not.  Near desperation on wanting a situation to be a certain way has led many, well-intentioned leaders in error to project their “positive thinking” on that of a foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Such decisions are often supported by captivating assessments of positive outcomes not based in reality. Only a negative outcome would reveal the flaws of an approach for some.  Perhaps in its rush to respond to the ISIS problem, the Obama administration may have been blinded to the fact that it could be sending the wrong signals and creating conditions for future difficulties with Iran.  Qui totum vult totum perdit.  (He who wants everything, loses everything.)

Obama’s Letter: Cui bono?

Developing options for Obama has been vexing for administration officials and advisers. Obama has been adverse to taking military action. That has typically left a limited range of options that they have been able to present to Obama.  Even in situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary as with ISIS, officials and advisers likely presented options for actions that were light-weight, very small in scale, and calibrated precisely. The initial size and scope of the US anti-ISIS air campaign evinced that.  At the “human level,” among reasons sending a letter to Khamenei was determined acceptable may have been that letters had been sent to Khamenei in the past with satisfactory results.  (Indeed, the October letter marked at least the fourth time Obama has written Khamenei since taking office in 2009.)  Sending the letter was easy enough to do.  The option was a diplomatic tact and therefore more attractive to Obama than the “unappealing” military options already adopted for Iraq.  Discussion on the letter among officials and advisers fell outside the milieu of the unending military intervention debate in the White House.  Additionally, as previously discussed by greatcharlie.com, Obama has a predilection toward forgiving or, considering the overwhelming military power of the US, showing mercy toward an offending rogue actor.  The letter is one more example of that tack. The effort to bring Iran into the anti-ISIS fight as a partner, even nominally, certainly is in line with Obama’s policy of promoting multilateral cooperation, particularly regarding the  commitment of military forces.  His apparent obsession with making it work may be part of the impetus for his administration’s outreach to an unlikely ally. So far, the administration has not had much luck prodding its anti-ISIS coalition partners into ground combat operations against ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. When ISIS was on the move, it seemed that the US State Department, in addition to “rearranging,” with good intentions, the Iraqi government, was most interested in gathering countries to become members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. 

Qualifications for inclusion in that coalition were nominal. Of the sixty-two countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily.  Many countries simply pledged their support.  As greatcharlie.com discussed in its October 25, 2014 post entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort”, the US has practically demanded more from some countries.  One country the US has pressured for action is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less military capabilities than the US would subordinate its own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is flawed.  Turkey likely reached the same conclusions as the US about conditions for intervening in Iraq and Syria with ground troops.  In Syria, there would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work.  If Turkey’s operations in Syria were to “creep” beyond destroying ISIS and the Assad regime was displaced, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition.  Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on the stewardship of Syria, which would surely be a political, economic, and social basket case, would be to Turkey’s benefit.

Responses in Tehran to Obama’s Letter

The thinking on Obama’s letter in Tehran was certainly different than his administration must have hoped.  An adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ali Khoram, speaking in Oman, confirmed to the Arabic daily, Asharq al-Aswat, that Obama reached out directly to Khamenei in a mid-October letter.  However, Khamenei’s foreign affairs adviser, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian State media that he was not aware of Obama’s outreach.  Khamenei’s web-site does not acknowledge receipt of the letter.  Obama’s letter, on its face, likely aggravated Khamenei, particularly to the extent that Obama did not render appreciation or even praise for the considerable effort and sacrifices already being made by Iran against ISIS.  That was a massive “oversight” if the goal of the letter was truly to promote cooperation at some level with Iran.  Using the anti-ISIS fight as a basis for dialogue with Khamenei perhaps had become a futile effort after he declared in October 2014 that “America, Zionism, and especially the veteran expert of spreading divisions—the wicked government of Britain—have sharply increased their efforts of creating divisions between the Sunnis and Shiites [Shi’a].”  He further stated, “They created al Qaeda and ‘Islamic State’ in order to create divisions and to fight against the Islamic Republic [Iran], but today, they have turned on them.”  It is possible that to Khamenei, the letter may have appeared more as a manifestation of Obama’s attitude than a response to a foreign policy problem.  Khamenei may have viewed the letter as an expression of Obama’s uncertainty over the US’s ability to shape the outcome of the anti-ISIS fight on his terms.  Khamenei, a spiritual, religious leader, likely sensed Obama’s inner-struggle over using the US military.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had already expressed ambivalence about continued communication between leaders in Washington and Tehran.  The Associated Press reported Rouhani stated in October 2014 that the time “wasn’t right” for another phone conversation or a meeting with Obama “because of the sensitivity that still exists between the two countries.”  The Associated Press also reported Rouhani as stating there must be substantive reasons with “high objectives” for conversations between world leaders.  If not, he said, “telephone calls are somewhat meaningless.”  Rouhani explained a phone conversation between leaders “would only be constructive and fruitful when it is done according to a precisely laid plan with precisely clearly stated objectives.” Otherwise, he said, “it will never be constructive or effective.”

Obama’s letter most likely did much to boost confidence among Iranian leaders, particularly the IRGC and political and religious hardliners that the US was not moving with an assured step and posed no threat to plans Iran has in Iraq or the region.  The failure of the US to act effectively and decisively in Iraq right away and the abysmal results shown for the nearly decade long US training program for the Iraqi Army and police forces very likely mitigated fears within all quarters in Tehran that the Obama administration might take military action against Iran or use Iraqi security forces to attack Iran.  Officials and advisers to Khamenei likely feel the fight with ISIS has caused Obama to consider what the US might face from the Iranian Armed Forces and other security elements globally if it attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  They certainly believe going to war with Iran would be a far greater enterprise for the US than fighting ISIS.  They probably feel certain that the US would never attack Iran while the anti-ISIS fight was raging.  They likely believe Obama would totally reject the idea of fighting Iran and ISIS simultaneously.

Iran’s Efforts in Iraq

Sitting right across the border from Iraq, Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, saw an even greater danger from ISIS than the US did, and immediately attended to it.  Rouhani has stated “We’ve actually been the ones countering terrorism in the region for years.”  He also stated, “Had it not been for Iran’s timely assistance, many of the Iraqi cities would have fallen to the hands of these vicious terrorists.”  The Iranians were never going to wait and see what the US does next once ISIS was on the move. They needed to stop ISIS. Iranian leaders certainly realized that waiting could lead to tragic consequences.  ISIS had begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives.  Syria provided a reliable model to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory.  Back on June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.

Iranian military and security officials knew that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to deter attacks against its fighters.  ISIS would follow through with their threats without hesitation.  ISIS has since committed such acts in Iraq. The Iranians also knew ISIS would set up an Islamic state in captured territory, sustainable or not.  If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk.  ISIS would surely attack Iran.

Iran has IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani handling the situation in Iraq. The eyes of Iran are on him.  The Sunday Times of London reported on June 15, 2014 that Suleimani travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. A senior Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  The Iraqi source also said Suleimani brought “light and medium weapons, rockets, heavy machine guns and lots of ammunition.”  Much publicity has been produced by the Iranian government over Suleimani’s presence on the ground in Iraq.  As it was predicted by greatcharlie.com, Suleimani began his operations against ISIS by using the Quds Force, which are IRGC special operations forces that he directly commands, and small numbers of other IRGC combat units.  Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops increased intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.  By moving throughout Iraq, particularly in the so-called Islamic Caliphate, Iranian intelligence officers have gained information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and kept their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links certainly have been established with commanders of Kurdish fighters and Iraqi security forces to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Those contacts with the Iraqi security forces have reportedly also allowed for the collection of information on, and creation of informal communication with, US military and intelligence elements operating on the ground in Iraq.  Intelligence collected concerning ISIS has been utilized in the development of an operational plan. When necessary MOIS and Quds Force personnel, have been used tactically, fighting primarily alongside Kurdish fighters against ISIS.  Indeed, Iranian forces have done a lot of fighting, and they have gained the Kurds’ respect and confidence.  Suleimani ramped up the training and equipping of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen.  Battle-ready units have been deployed in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq and Holy Shrines.  Others are being sent directly into the combat against ISIS.  Suleimani has reportedly deployed Lebanese Hezbollah to Iraq to work with the Shi’a militias.  Truckloads of arms and equipment from Iran continuously flow to the Shi’a militiamen. Some supplies and weapons are being flown in.  Five Sukhoi-25 fighter-bombers were from Iran into Iraq for the Iraqi Air Force.

Once operating in the shadows, photos of IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (center) on the battlefield in Iraq have recently appeared in Iranian state media, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

How Iran Could Proceed

Iran is still not counting on the US to act on the ground in a muscular way against ISIS any time soon since it has just begun training “its Iraqis.”  In the meantime, Iran might opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq.  Back in June 2014, Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “We can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi Army that we have been able to provide the Syrian Army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That apparently meant having greater numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there.  The more Iran can accomplish against ISIS, the less the US will need to do.  There would also be less for US trained Iraqis to do.  Even with the specter of sectarian strife hanging over everything, Iran will be viewed among many average Iraqis as rescuers.

As discussed in greatcharlie.com’s June 30, 2014 post entitled “While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!“, a  further increase in Iranian intervention might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, not coordinated with the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide Kurdish fighters, Shi’a militia, some Iraqi security forces, and all Iranian units in Iraq with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability that ISIS would be unable to match.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support the advance and help control recaptured territory.

With Iraq’s consent, Iran could deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  A huge deficit in the Iranian effort if Suleimani’s plan is to defeat ISIS is close air support.  Regardless of the availability of artillery, close air support is the best, most rapid means to exploit tactical opportunities in the offense or defense.  It can provide fires, with appropriate ordinance, to destroy, disrupt, suppress, fix, harass, neutralize, or delay ISIS forces.  Iran’s fight against ISIS now is one-dimensional.

Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that Iran, just as the US, and just as Turkey, will not commit itself so heavily to Iraq without expecting to acquire even greater influence over it.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds, it is hard to see how Iran would not be able to shape the political, economic, and social situation in Iraq for years.  If the Iranians manage to shape the military situation on the ground in Iraq—and that could happen depending on the scale of its of intervention even though some Western analysts have expressed doubts, they will have much to gain.  Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region would be furthered.  Military and security officials may become the primary voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, on Iraq, as well as Syria, Obama really seems to be searching for answers. Some might derisively state he is paralyzed with uncertainty over what to do.  Given that possibility, Obama’s letter on ISIS likely satisfied Khamenei although he rejected it.  In the US, “cynics” among Obama’s political opponents hearing of the letter may have wanted to quote to their president the warning of conservative political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. that there is always a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil.  Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. Devising foreign policy approaches requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature.  Obama, himself, must respond to issues not based on his personal needs, values, and principles, but those of the US.  His country’s needs must come before establishing his legacy.

As US National Security Adviser Susan Rice confirmed in October 2014, US forces and Iranian forces are both operating in Iraq to support local elements in their battle against ISIS.  The Iranian commander, Suleimani, does not have any friends in the US military given his activities against US forces during the Iraq War.  US military and intelligence officials would certainly like to get their hands on him.  However, as US and Iranian forces have been tasked to operate in the same space, it had to be expected that they would cross paths.  Informal cooperation between Suleimani’s Quds Force operatives and MOIS officers and US special operators and intelligence officers, albeit through the Iraqi security force intermediaries, has resulted.  For example, in the fight for Amerli, Iraqi security forces, Shi’a militiamen, and Iranian operators, maneuvered on the ground against ISIS fighters while US airpower struck ISIS targets with multiple airstrikes.  US and Iranian commanders “coordinated informally” by passing messages to each other through commanders of the Iraqi security forces in the fight.  Such professionally handled interactions will likely continue to occur.  While some cooperation agreement by national leaders might prove helpful, US and Iranian interactions in Iraq must be sorted out on the scene.

The Commander-in-chief’s confidence in US military commanders at the Pentagon and US Central Command and officers and enlisted men on the ground in Iraq is the most important factor in all of this.  Rather the send letters to Iranian leaders at this juncture, Obama would do more to enhance chances of success in Iraq by communicating with, and encouraging, his own fighters.  He should meet those he has sent to Iraq confidentially, perhaps even on the ground, and let them know directly how important they are to him and how important their mission is to the US.  He must let them know that he has complete confidence in their capabilities and that he is relying on them to successfully complete their mission.  German Field Marshal Walter Model, the controversial World War II battlefield genius, was known to use a line from Goethe to praise his finest officers: “Den lieb ich, der umogliches begehrt! (I love him who craves the impossible!)”  The special operators that were sent to Iraq to perform the advise-and-assist mission may not be able to perform the impossible.  However, knowing they have the full support and confidence of their commander-in-chief, they will do whatever is humanly possible to destroy ISIS and perform beyond any projections by analysts in or out of the military.  Significant achievements of those “quiet professionals” in Iraq could inspire the Iranians to reach out to the US regarding “coordination.”  After all, when Rouhani was asked in September whether Tehran could formally work with the US to tackle ISIS, he stated, “We can think about it if we see America start confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq.  We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups.”

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