Thursday, September 3, 2009

President Obama sent a second letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, before Iran’s disputed presidential elections, an Iranian-American activist says.

The Washington Times reported in June that Mr. Obama wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei in May seeking talks and improved relations between the longtime adversaries.

An Iranian Web site, Tabnak, reported Wednesday that the president had sent a second letter, but did not provide a date.

An Iranian individual familiar with the report told The Washington Times that the second letter arrived two weeks ago via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. The individual, who asked not to be named because he was discussing sensitive matters, said the letter asked for “better cooperation” between the two countries, which have not had diplomatic relations since 1980.

White House officials cast doubt on the report but declined to deny it on the record.

“There have been multiple ways that communication has taken place with Iran,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor wrote in an e-mail. “We do not discuss the details or modalities of those communications.”

Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian-American Council, a group that represents Iranians in the U.S., said Ayatollah Khamenei had responded to Mr. Obama’s first letter and that Mr. Obama then sent another letter to the Iranian leader.

Mr. Parsi, who did not disclose the contents of the letters, said that the entire exchange took place prior to the June 12 presidential elections, which handed a disputed victory to incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Since the vote, thousands of Iranians have protested in the streets, and the regime has arrested hundreds of reformists, academics and Iranians with ties to the West. At least 30 people have been killed, according to government figures, and 100 are being tried on charges they sought to overthrow the Iranian government with foreign help.

The Iranian press report about a second letter from Mr. Obama came as diplomats from six world powers met in Frankfurt to urge Iran to agree to talks or face new sanctions. On Tuesday, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator said Iran was preparing a new offer for negotiations over its nuclear program.

Mr. Parsi said it appeared that the Iranian government was seeking to shore up its legitimacy internally following the election protests.

“It seems like the Iranians want to negotiate more for domestic purposes than because they are ready to make a deal,” Mr. Parsi said.

A U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing sensitive matters, said Mr. Ahmadinejad was also trying to show his rivals among Iranian hard-liners that he is capable of handling negotiations with the United States. “He has certain vulnerabilities,” the U.S. official said. “The fight within the regime is real and ongoing.”

The Obama administration, which came to office promising to engage with Iran, has not directly communicated with Mr. Ahmadinejad, the U.S. official said.

It continues to state that it wants talks with Iran, but officials have expressed skepticism about whether the Iranian government is capable of negotiating, given the divisions within the regime following the elections.

Still, some Iranian activists say the U.S. should do more to show its opposition to Iran’s abuse of human rights.

“Unfortunately, the U.S. tries to engage with the Islamic republic no matter who becomes its president,” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, a Washington-based activist who fled Iran in 2000 but traveled back to his homeland in June to try to coordinate election protests. “The U.S. totally forgot American values, and they’re just looking for an Islamic ‘Chinese model’ to begin engaging with these regimes and make business during a poor economic situation,” Mr. Farahanipour said.

U.S. officials may also be seeking to avoid statements and actions that could feed Iranian claims that outsiders are largely responsible for the postelection unrest. The administration is, however, supporting programs that help Iranians seeking to circumvent government controls on the Internet.

“Behind the scenes we were doing a lot to really empower the protesters without getting in the way,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told CNN recently. “And we’re continuing to speak out and support the opposition.”

Tehran seized on the statements, publishing them on the front page of the hard-line Kayhan daily as a “confession.”

“On democracy promotion, Obama is a gradualist with transformative goals, in sharp contrast with [President George W.] Bush’s ‘liberation theology’ backed by force and sanctions,” said Mark Medish, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former adviser to President Clinton. “Obama’s engagement approach is true to the American tradition of pragmatism and is also making up for the fact that Bush overplayed his hand.”

Mr. Medish added, “The paradox of democracy promotion across borders is that tools of influence often backfire much as organ transplants often fail. America stands for the democratic idea globally, but American history also teaches that the struggle for rights is a deeply domestic and organic process.

“Finding the right balance point for effective outside pressure is tricky,” Mr. Medish said. “Obama knows this.”

Iason Athanasiadis reported from Istanbul.

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