America and Iran: Backchanneling In Plain Sight

President Barack Obama confirmed in an interview broadcast today that he has exchanged letters with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in what may be the first successfully reciprocated communication between leaders of the two countries. The confirmation vaults what had been a quietly evolving process of bilateral diplomacy between the two long-time adversaries into the public eye at a particularly sensitive moment — immediately on the heels of a U.S.-Russian deal to avert military action in Syria and right on the eve of Rouhani’s departure for his first-ever visit to the United States.

In my recently-released Brookings Essay on Iran, I make the case that Rouhani was elected in order to staunch Iran’s economic troubles by reorienting its approach to the world. This latest development only strengthens my conviction that what we are witnessing is a historic shift by Iran — one that is nowhere near complete and that may still go up in smoke, but one that if carried to fruition could result in a reduction in the threats posed by the Islamic Republic to its neighbors and to its own citizens.

While today’s interview represents the first official confirmation of the U.S.-Iranian dialogue, it is worth noting that the news of high-level American communication with Tehran was first leaked in the Iranian press more than two weeks ago. The allusions to the letters were largely overlooked by the Washington press and punditocracy, excluding reports in the Los Angeles Times and Radio Free Europe. Ironically, many seemed more consumed with Iran’s flashy new public diplomacy campaign — including Rouhani’s semi-official Twitter greetings and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s Facebook debates — to pay much attention to its more traditional modes of official outreach. As a result, under the cover of plain sight, it would appear that Washington and Tehran began the opening steps in a delicate dance of arms-length bilateral diplomacy.

In late August, the Iranian leadership received two significant visits from foreign dignitaries: United Nations Undersecretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman — a former senior State Department officials — and Sultan Qaboos of Oman. Qaboos has served as Washington’s go-to intermediary with the Iranian leadership for decades, and Feltman’s previous post as the Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs in the Obama Administration enables him to play a unique role in relaying American perspectives to Tehran, and vice versa. Tehran initially rejected any hints of messaging via these interlocutors, but after their departure, a number of Iranian publications have referenced the letter from Obama, with speculation on an Iranian response.

These initial signals took place under the shadow of the intensifying Syrian conflict, and Washington’s intense debate over a military response to the August 21st chemical weapons attacks against Syrian civilians. That the bilateral diplomacy between Washington and Tehran appears to have survived the chemical weapons crisis hints at the appreciation on both sides that this may be the best — and last — opportunity to resolve the international standoff over Iran’s nuclear program through negotiations. And the Syrian tragedy underscores why a more regularized channel of communication between the two governments could prove useful. Tehran’s rhetoric on the chemical attacks appeared to moderate in the days after the visits of Feltman and Qaboos, and Foreign Minister Zarif has been quoted publicly indicating that the two states have exchanged messages specifically on the question of Syria.

Letter diplomacy is a miniscule start to overcoming the massive and historically intractable differences between these two governments. But it is not an insubstantial accomplishment either. Obama’s prior letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, went unanswered, as did repeated prior efforts by the Clinton Administration to initiate a dialogue with Tehran. The Iranian side can also claim its own snubs, including a purported 2003 overture for a “grand bargain” initiated with the cooperation of mid-ranking diplomats, and even the curious missives of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The 34-year history of the bilateral estrangement is littered with signals that went unreceived and communiques that simply disappeared into the ether of domestic politics on the other side.

For the first time, it appears that Washington and Tehran are capable of carrying on a direct conversation between their respective leaders. Let’s hope it continues, and even more so, that it leads to real progress on the most urgent differences between the two governments, particularly the nuclear issue and Syria.