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EXCLUSIVE: U.S. contacted Iran’s ayatollah before election

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Prior to this month's disputed presidential election in Iran, the Obama administration sent a letter to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling for an improvement in relations, according to interviews and the leader himself.

Ayatollah Khamenei confirmed the letter toward the end of a lengthy sermon last week, in which he accused the United States of fomenting protests in his country in the aftermath of the disputed June 12 presidential election.

U.S. officials declined to discuss the letter on Tuesday, a day in which President Obama gave his strongest condemnation yet of the Iranian crackdown against protesters.

An Iranian with knowledge of the overture, however, told The Washington Times that the letter was sent between May 4 and May 10 and laid out the prospect of "cooperation in regional and bilateral relations" and a resolution of the dispute over Iran's nuclear program.

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The Iranian, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the letter was given to the Iranian Foreign Ministry by a representative of the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of U.S.-Iran diplomatic relations. The letter was then delivered to the office of Ayatollah Khamenei, he said.

The letter was sent before the election, whose outcome - delivering a supposed landslide to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - has touched off the biggest anti-government protests in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The Obama administration, while criticizing a violent crackdown on demonstrators by Iranian security forces, has said that it will continue efforts to engage the Iranian government about its nuclear program and other issues touching on U.S. national security.

In his news conference on Tuesday, however, President Obama gave his most forceful statement yet about Iran's actions, which have led to the deaths of at least 17 protesters, including a young woman whose shooting death has become known around the world through the Internet.

"I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost," Mr. Obama said. "I've made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran's affairs. But we must also bear witness to the courage and the dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place. ... Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history."

Mr. Obama added, however, that the United States has "core national security interests in making sure that Iran doesn't possess a nuclear weapon and it stops exporting terrorism outside of its borders."

"We have provided a path whereby Iran can reach out to the international community, engage, and become a part of international norms.

"It is up to them to make a decision as to whether they choose that path."

A senior Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because he was discussing private communications, would not confirm or deny that a letter had been sent to Ayatollah Khamenei and would not say if there had been a response.

However, the official said, "We have indicated a willingness to talk for a long time and have sought to communicate with the Iranians in a variety of ways. We have made it clear that any real dialogue - multilateral or bilateral - needed to be authoritative."

Under the Iranian Constitution, Ayatollah Khamenei makes the final decisions on Iran's foreign and defense policies.

In a lengthy sermon Friday that reaffirmed the disputed re-election of Mr. Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khamenei made an oblique reference to a letter from the U.S. but embedded the reference in a diatribe against purported U.S. interference in Iranian affairs.

"The American president was quoted as saying that he expected the people of Iran to take to the streets," Ayatollah Khamenei misquoted Mr. Obama as saying, according to a translation by Mideastwire.com.

"On the one hand, they [the Obama administration] write a letter to us to express their respect for the Islamic Republic and for re-establishment of ties, and on the other hand they make these remarks. Which one of these remarks are we supposed to believe? Inside the country, their agents were activated. Vandalism started. Sabotaging and setting fires on the streets started. Some shops were looted. They wanted to create chaos. Public security was violated. The violators are not the public or the supporters of the candidates. They are the ill-wishers, mercenaries and agents of the Western intelligence services and the Zionists."

An Iranian news site, Ayandehnews.com, first reported on the U.S. letter on Tuesday.

Asked about the letter, the Swiss ambassador to Washington, Urs Ziswiller, told The Times, "I cannot comment on that."

Past U.S. efforts to engage Iran have foundered, in part because the overture was addressed to Iran's president rather than the supreme leader. This was the case in the late 1990s when then-President Clinton wrote a letter to then-President Mohammed Khatami seeking cooperation against terrorism in the aftermath of a bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 Americans. The 1996 bombing at Khobar Towers, thought to have been committed by Iran-backed Saudi Shi'ites, took place before Mr. Khatami took office.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Obama administration would do better to "avoid any talk of engagement" with Iran until the outcome of the current political ferment is clearer.

"The fact is, we will by necessity engage, but not at the moment," he said. "I don't think we want to suggest it will be business as usual, regardless of the outcome" of the political struggle in Iran.

Patrick Clawson, an Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Mr. Obama's tougher remarks on Tuesday showed that he understands that "the prospects for a successful engagement are declining."

About the Author
Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is assistant managing editor for World and National Security at The Washington Times and the author of a 2007 book on Iran, titled “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.” Before joining The Times in July 2008, she was senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today. She has accompanied three secretaries of state ...

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