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Unknown contents of President Obama’s letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran under scrutiny by Republicans and the blogosphere as a historic deal nears, says Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

The letter that President Obama wrote to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini has come under a great deal of scrutiny from the Republicans and some media.

The controversy is the topic of our next conversation with Trita Parsi. Trita has recently published an article in the Foreign Policy magazine, titled “Pen-Palling with the Ayatollah”. “Only ideologues and the ignorant don’t understand that Obama’s letter to Khamenei is just pragmatic politics”, he writes.

Now joining us to talk about the president, Obama’s letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, and its fallout here in the U.S. is Trita Parsi. Trita is the author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, and he is the president of the National Iranian American Council.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Trita.

Trita, what do we know about the context of that letter? And why did it become so controversial, so much so that it’s called a secret letter?

TRITA PARSI, PRESIDENT, NATIONAL IRANIAN AMERICAN COUNCIL: Well, we don’t know exactly what’s in the letter. The letter was leaked to The Wall Street Journal by a source that apparently seems to be somewhat displeased with the president’s diplomacy with Iran. What the article reveals, though, or hints at is that the president made clear that even though common interests exist between Iran and the United States when it comes to ISIS, there cannot be significant collaboration between the two until the nuclear issue is first resolved.

Nevertheless, the way this letter has been casted in the commentary that has taken place in the United States in the blogosphere has been as if this is yet another concession that Obama is giving to the Iranians, even though no one actually knows the details or even the full contents of this letter.

What it’s come down to is the fact that there are still, in circles in Washington, D.C., particularly right now, when we’re about two weeks away from a potentially historic deal between the United States and Iran, those who still do not believe that the United States should talk to countries that it does disagree with, and that talking to your enemy, so to say, is a sign of weakness. This is a rehashing of the presidential debate that took place in 2008, in which Obama stood for the idea that diplomacy should be the foremost tool of American statecraft, and someone like Senator McCain was opposed to the idea of talking to those who disagree with United States, because that would be a sign of weakness that would legitimize those detractors. Of course, Obama won that election in a landslide.

PERIES: That was an interesting moment in 2008, when Obama came out at odds with his own party opponent, Hillary Clinton, on Iran. But this kind of letter exchanges are not unusual. Many U.S. presidents have written to supreme leaders of Iran in the past, and certainly the ayatollah Khamenei has, as well as former president Ahmadinejad and President Khatami had exchanged letters with U.S. leaders, U.S. presidents, in fact, the Bush administration. Why is this one so controversial?

PARSI: I think you put your finger on it quite right. There has been communication in the past. The United States president has sent letters to Iran. President Obama himself has sent at least three letters prior to this to the Iranian leaders, and vice versa there has been some letters. And don’t know if from Khamenei himself directly, but he has responded to Obama’s letters. The difference is that this time around it comes about two weeks prior to a potential historic deal, and there are elements in Iran, in the region, and certainly in Washington, D.C., who fear the idea of having to lose an enemy in the Middle East. And precisely because of that, they’re creating this tempest in a teacup about this communication.

PERIES: So again this is not unusual. Whenever there is a common interest on the part of Iran and the U.S., they find ways to collaborate. At the moment, their interests is converging around the IS.

PARSI: Sure, there is a common interest between Iran and the United States against ISIS, or IS, as they also call themselves. And common interests between the United States and Iran on other issues have existed in the past. In fact, in 2001 they collaborated extensively to defeat the Taliban and establish a new constitution for Afghanistan. So, incidentally, particularly against Sunni radicals there has been a common interest between the United States and Iran in the past, and they have collaborated. So there’s nothing particularly new about that.

What is perhaps a bit new is that the Iranians have come to view the spread of Sunni radicalism and sectarianism in the region as their primary threat. It’s no longer the United States that is defined as the primary threat, or Israel, for that matter, but it is sectarianism and the way that that can actually unravel the internal ethnic and religious balance inside of Iran. And that has caused some in Iran to view that there is even more reason to be able to find some commonality with the United States, at a minimum reduce tensions over the nuclear issue, perhaps eliminate that conflict altogether, in order for Iran to be able to focus on its main threats, which is sectarianism and its risk of it getting inside the country as a whole.

PERIES: As we know, Iran has also taken a great lead in the fight against the IS, long before President Obama’s speech, the famous speech on the war against ISIS. According to local media, high-ranking military officials of the Iranian military has met on the ground with Kurdish Peshmergas fighting the IS in the region.

PARSI: Yes, according to the Kurds and to the Iraqi government, the first country that actually came to their aid by providing both weaponry as well as advisers against the fight with ISIS were the Iranians. And there’s obvious reasons for that. This is a direct threat to the Iranians. And the Iranians have played a dominant role in Iraqi politics, and as a result the loss of Mosul was actually a bigger embarrassment to Iran than it was the United States. The United States had already left the country, whereas the Iranians were still present in many different ways politically.

So the Iranians had an interest, and they acted very quickly on that. Of course, then later on the United States chose not to invite Iran into the coalition that is taking on ISIS in Syria and in Iraq. But the Iranians have themselves been on the ground coordinating with the Iraqi government against ISIS.

PERIES: Trita, as you know, there has also been meetings between leaders of Iraq and Iran over the battle against the IS that is of great importance to the U.S., wouldn’t you say?

PARSI: I mean, at the end of the day, IS is a major threat to the region as a whole, and the United States is clearly quite aware of this danger and has tried to put together a coalition–incidentally, a coalition of states that–many of them have had something to do with the rise of IS in the first place. The bottom line is, if there are common interests, it lies in the interests of the United States to explore if it can collaborate, even with countries like Iran in which the United States has a rather poor relationship and has a 35-year-old enmity with.

The idea of ridiculing the president for having taken this step is, to me, the true controversy. The idea that in 2014 there are still circles in Washington, D.C., that believe that the United States should not talk to the most powerful countries in the region when it lies in its interest to do so, because by talking to the other side you actually convey that you are weak, that to me is actually the real controversy, that that belief is still around.

PERIES: Yeah, yes, which you have labeled ignorance in your article. This kind of behavior on the part of the Republicans are counterproductive to the stated U.S. goals in all of this. Explain that history for us.

PARSI: It’s interesting you mention that, because, for instance, the president, the previous president, President George Bush himself, did talk to the Iranians and reached out in 2001 because there was a sense that there was a commonality of interests against the Taliban, and the U.S. and Iran coordinated both politically and militarily and in the intelligence sphere against the Taliban.

But once there was a sense that Iran’s help was no longer needed, the United States but Iran in the axis of evil, and that closed the door for the opportunity for future collaborations, which, of course, the United States itself ended up paying very heavily for, because it made the conflicts, the existing conflicts, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, all the more difficult to resolve, because the U.S. and Iran ended up competing in those arenas precisely because of the fact that George Bush closed the door for collaboration. So there is a significant price to be paid by pursuing these ideological foreign policies that completely contradict what the pragmatic interests of the United States is.

PERIES: Alright, Trina, thank you so much for shedding so much light on this very hot issue at the moment.

PARSI: Thank you so much for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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