Iran, the US, and Letter Diplomacy: From Private to Public Debate

Friday, July 31st, 2015

Letters and secret messages have played a key role in diplomatic history, and while their use in US-Iran relations may seem a quaint throwback, their presence in this setting has been crucial in this most problematic of diplomatic relationships.

In the lead up to the June 30th deadline for the talks on Iran’s nuclear program, news outlets began reporting on a ‘secret message’ that had been relayed from Obama to Iran’s leaders via the Iraqi Prime Minister. In the weeks prior to the March framework agreement deadline, the group of 47 Republican senators revealed their own not so secret letter to the Iranian leadership. But buried amongst the expected media frenzy on what such moves mean for these negotiations, lies a diplomatic tool that has become an enduring feature of US-Iran diplomacy since the late 1990s. Letters and secret messages have played a key role in diplomatic history, and while their use in US-Iran relations may seem a quaint throwback, their presence in this setting has been crucial in this most problematic of diplomatic relationships.

Secret contacts

Declassified NSA documents released in 2010 revealed that Bill Clinton sent a letter, via the Sultan of Oman, to then-president Mohammad Khatami in 1999. In the letter, Clinton sought to highlight alleged evidence of Iranian complicity in the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996. He did attempt to couch this accusation in diplomatic terms, alluding to this happening before Khatami’s election and stating that the US did not have hostile intentions and sought good relations with Iran. The Iranian response was one of opprobrium at the accusations, but also noted that Iran bore no hostile intentions and was committed to pursuing détente—a key feature of the Khatami presidency. Ultimately, the attempted outreach by Clinton proved futile, largely on account of the mixed messages it contained, and the fact that it rather naively bypassed the key centre of power in Iranian politics, the Supreme Leader.

In May 2003, early in George W. Bush’s first term, Iran sought to take the initiative with a written offer of sorts; this time in the shape of a fax delivered to the US via the Swiss ambassador in Washington. The 2003 ‘grand bargain’ that was offered by Iran laid it all on the table—direct talks on nuclear negotiations, Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and promoting stability in Iraq—in return for ending sanctions and providing Iran with security guarantees. The response from then-vice president Cheney’s office—“We don’t talk to evil”—has since been widely reported, and demonstrates the US’s perceived position of strength following the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Iran was being considered as the next target.

Return to sender?

Khatami’s successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while not noted for his tact and diplomacy, also attempted to use the letter as a diplomatic tool. This came in the form of personal missives to Bush and Obama, and an open letter to the American people. The first, sent to Bush in May 2006 via the Swiss embassy received no response—the letter was dismissed by the administration as no more than an extended lecture. They cited that the letter was not relevant to the ongoing nuclear issue, which was the prime US concern with Iran. Undeterred, and perhaps cognizant of the fact that he might have more success engaging in a more public form of diplomacy, Ahmadinejad sent an open letter to the American people via the press in November 2006. In it he was seeking to present a different, more conciliatory face, but he ultimately undid his cause with his continued questioning of the holocaust and attacks on the US and Israel.

Ahmadinejad also sent congratulations to Obama on his election in 2008, again via Swiss intermediaries, which constituted the first complimentary message sent to the US from Iran since the revolution. He also wrote again to the US president in March 2010, the details of which have not been released. Though attempts at rapprochement, as with previous overtures, went hand in hand with continued public haranguing of the US government. On both occasions, Obama chose not to respond, and the next phase of US-Iran letter diplomacy saw a bypassing of the president all together, as Obama sought to make contact with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Obama’s pen pals

Obama’s approach to letter diplomacy shows a more nuanced understanding that has developed in the US around how to deal with and approach the Iranian leadership, although again it is subject to the vicissitudes of American and Iranian politics. Rather than what in hindsight seems a clumsy attempt by Clinton to both reach out and admonish while bypassing the Supreme Leader, Obama has chosen to directly engage with Khamenei, and subsequently with current-president Rouhani. Obama wrote a letter to Khamenei in May 2009, delivered via the Swiss embassy, seeking bilateral talks. Khamenei responded in a guardedly positive manner to the conciliatory tone offered by Obama. However, tentative plans for contact were to be overtaken by political events later that year. Reacting to the positive noises from Tehran, Obama penned a second letter, which was delivered days prior to the disputed June 2009 elections in Iran. This time he received no direct response, due to quickly deteriorating relations—a result of vocal US support for the opposition Green Movement. In Friday prayers following the unrest, Khamenei criticized Obama for writing nice words while at the same time vociferously condemning Iran. In Khamenei’s eyes, it showed that the US could not be trusted. Iranian officials claimed that a third letter calling for direct talks was sent to Khamenei from Obama in November 2012, but this was denied at the time by the Obama administration.

Following Rouhani’s victory in the 2013 presidential elections, Obama again put pen to paper, this time to congratulate Rouhani on his election and to call for better ties. Rouhani responded in kind, precipitating a renewed atmosphere of dialogue and an advance in the nuclear negotiations. This wasn’t necessarily a bypassing of Khamenei, but more a recognition that Rouhani had been given a mandate by the Supreme Leader to pursue a new diplomatic track, one that Khamenei described as requiring ‘heroic leniency’, over the nuclear issue.

In a ‘secret letter’ sent in late 2014 Obama sought to highlight the ‘shared fight’ against the Islamic State and allegedly linked the solving of the nuclear issue to possible further collaboration over this mutual threat. This comes at a time when both states had an active and visible presence on the ground in Iraq in the form of military advisers, training Iraqi forces and allied militias. The subsequent tacit acquiescence to the principle of combating a shared enemy is in marked contrast to their previous engagements in Iraq, which essentially became a proxy war. Could the correspondence have helped foster a mutual understanding here?

Social media: public diplomacy or publicity-seeking diplomacy?

Obama’s June message aside—which itself has provoked debate on the twittersphere as to whether it was indeed a letter or not—recent letters between Iran and the US have taken on a different form, where we see a very public broadcasting of so-called ‘letters’. Firstly, in January this year, Khamenei published his ‘#letter4u’. This was a social media campaign launched on multiple platforms aimed at the youth of Europe and North America, and was penned by Khamenei in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. In it, he encourages “curious and enquiring” Western youth to learn about Islam and to be wary of misleading governments and media. This is Iranian public diplomacy writ large, with it comes a hefty dose of government narrative.

Finally, the now infamous letter to the Iranian leadership from the so-called GOP 47, a group of 47 Republican senators seeking to disrupt the nuclear negotiations between the executive leadership from both countries. A key point here is that this was not a letter in the conventional sense, but one that was instead posted on the author, Senator Tom Cotton’s website. There was no personal element, insofar as it was addressed to the ‘Iranian leadership’. A social media storm followed, with Hilary Clinton, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the letter signatories, and a host of other commentators offering their take. At either extreme the letter was viewed as either treason or triumph. Regardless of its utility or otherwise in the negotiations, what is clear is that generated an enormous amount of publicity – diplomacy gone viral. The actions of the GOP 47 gave valuable publicity to those opposing the talks, and crucially Congress won an oversight role in reviewing the nuclear agreement, with a vote due to take place in September. Ultimately though, Obama has said he will veto any attempts by Congress to torpedo the deal.

Does the pen triumph the sword?

It would seem that the pen in its various guises has triumphed momentarily. It was, and until diplomatic relations are restored still is, a vital conduit for communications between the respective leaders. In terms of the ‘private’ or ’secret’ letters exchanged between the various leaders, it is perhaps the public responses to them from each government that tell us more than speculation as to their content. These letters, though not public diplomacy in its conventional sense, represent a diplomacy ostensibly private that becomes public and is then used and/or manipulated accordingly.

While there are those that strive for improved relations, and reflect positively on such contacts, there remain constituencies in the US and Iran that are still wedded to idea of enmity. In the latter case, non-cooperation and subsequent denial of contact is the norm. Apart from the internal political debate around the legality and ethics of a letter that inserted partisanship into an important moment in bilateral security policy, the GOP letter to Iranian leadership raised the public profile of the negotiations and changed the public narrative, demonstrating that diplomacy needs the oxygen of publicity regardless of the potential drawbacks. There may be claims that this is asserting a democratic right to have a say on the deal via elected representatives, but ultimately it is the power given by the Iranian and US leaders to those diplomats who spent the long hours crafting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in Lausanne that will prove decisive. The cautious diplomatic dance, fostered in no small part by private correspondence between leaders, and the personal chemistry of the negotiating team, shows how diplomatic agility is an endearing tool in international affairs.


Dr. Edward Wastnidge holds a PhD and MA in Middle Eastern Studies and is currently an Associate Professor and Lecturer of Politics and International Affairs at the Open University, UK. His recent work can be found in International Policy Digest, IranWire, The Conversation and Asia Times.