Global Politics

The Meaning Behind the Letters Obama and Rouhani Exchanged

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REUTERS/Jim Young

President Barack Obama at his desk in the Oval Office at the White House.

President Obama revealed in an interview with ABC that he’s corresponded with Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani. Obama says they’ve exchanged letters.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow at The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution about the importance of these letters.

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Marco Werman: The US and Iran don’t see eye to eye on Syria and many other topics, but over the weekend we found out that President Obama and Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, have exchanged letters. And here I thought nobody writes letters anymore. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution says the correspondence probably delivered through diplomatic channels.

Suzanne Maloney: Reports in the Iranian press have suggested that it was carried by the Sultan of Oman, who has been an interlocutor between the two countries for many years now, and this tends to be the way that American governments have sent official communications to the Iranian leadership outside the formal channel that exists between the foreign ministries of both countries.

Werman: It seems like such an outdated way to communicate. I mean what is the import of a letter? Why write a letter as opposed to anything else at this point in time?

Maloney: Well, the US and Iran have a sort of interesting relationship, one that lacks any direct communication mode between the two countries. Iran is the only country in the world in which the United States does not have a formal presence through an embassy or some other official presence in the country. And so as a result, we’re forced to communicate through third parties. I think what’s useful about the letter from the president and why it is that Obama has used this mechanism, and that the Iranians apparently have reciprocated is that it is an opportunity to set out in a way that is considered respectful in the Iranian tradition, and in fact, cannot be misinterpreted in a way that signals an overture, as tend to be between these two countries.

Werman: I mean why not? What’s embedded in a letter that makes it so definitive?

Maloney: I don’t know that it’s definitive, but it’s an explicit communication between two individuals and one in which the Iranians can look as opposed to simply point to a speech or a referenced phrase muttered in public, which has often been the way that the two leaderships have communicated with one another. The letter is the most appropriate way for a US leader to reach out to his Iranian counterpart, and vice versa. The difficulty and the obstacle that we’ve had in the past is there has never been a moment at which time the two leader were prepared to engage with one another. We’ve seen indications in the past that President Obama has communicated directly with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. We know in the past that Iranian leaders have in fact reached out to Washington via letters. Both of these sort of overtures have gone unreciprocated. This is the first instance that we have of a letter sent and returned relatively immediately in a way that appears to be at least somewhat constructive.

Werman: So what does that all mean? I mean are they prepared now to take it deeper, and if so, why now?

Maloney: I think what we’re seeing is just the opening moves in what is gonna be inevitably a complicated and prolonged process of testing the other side. And it began really not just with these letters, but with the election of a new Iranian president back in June of this year. The individual who won that election, Hasan Rouhani, appears to have been given a mandate both by the people who came to the ballot, but also by the political establishment who enabled him to run and permitted him to win in an election that is nothing close to free and fair. His mandate is to get Iran out of the box that it’s in, the box of sanctions and international isolation that have come over the course of the past eight years in particular. And the clearest path to doing that is to begin to find some accommodation on the nuclear issue. The only way that can be accomplished is by dealing directly with the United States of America.

Werman: I’m also just curious about the details of the letters themselves, I mean do you know if the one sent to Rouhani was handwritten or typed, what as the tone like, was it formal, informal?

Maloney: We don’t really know any details. I mean the Iranian press, of course, tends to leak these things almost immediately, so there have been indications in a number of newspapers, both hardline and reformists, of this kind of communication that came in. And early indications suggested that it was a formal letter that indicated some congratulations on behalf of the victory of Rouhani in the presidential election, and urged, as President Obama has done publicly and apparently in private correspondence previously, that Iran sit down seriously to negotiate and deal with the issues and differences it has with the international community. I wouldn’t expect anything specific in that form of a letter, although it’s also been reported in the Iranian press that the Sultan of Oman may have in fact referenced it some specific financial sanctions, which could be lifted if Iran was prepared to make some real progress and make some concessions on its nuclear program.

Werman: Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow at The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, thanks so much.

Maloney: Thank you.

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