Obama's letter to the mullahs

The Washington Times reports exclusively today that Barack Obama secretly sent a letter to Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council in early May.  President Obama told the Supreme Leader that he wanted better relations between the US and Iran, and that he hoped to build “cooperation and bilateral relations” with the Islamic Republic.  Khamenei reacted as anyone outside this White House might have expected:

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. …

“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.”

On one hand, one can see why Obama was reluctant to criticize the crackdown on the streets, even after Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel — two of Iran’s key trading partners — ripped the mullahs in public.  Obama believed that his letter might have had some impact on Khamenei, convincing the Guardian Council that they could work with the US.  As Khamenei’s response shows, it comes from an almost-blinding naiveté and a belief that the problem in US-Iranian relations is and has been the US, and not the radical Islamist extremists running Iran.

Obama tried saying all last week that he didn’t want to give the mullahs a propaganda boost by making it look as though we favored the protesters.  In effect, though, he already had given them one through his letter, and as events showed, the mullahs didn’t need a statement from Obama to make it look like the protests were a CIA plot.  Khamenei and his mullahs can simply make it up; they have done it quite often during the 30 years since the revolution.  “Peacefuly coexistence” isn’t on their agenda, a fact that hasn’t sunk in at the current White House yet.

There is nothing wrong in sending that letter, of course.  Probably every president since Jimmy Carter has at least attempted it, and the letter by itself does no harm.  It’s the belief that a letter will magically change the minds of the mullahs, and acting as though such a letter is more important than the Iranian people speaking for themselves, that is the amateurish mistake.