President Obama has penned at least four letters to Iran’s fanatically anti-American Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Obama’s goal is to melt away Khamenei’s severe distrust of the United States. “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us,” declared Obama at the start of his presidency in 2009.
Predictably, Iran has not wavered from its anti-Western position. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and the point person for Khamenei’s foreign policy, said “no” on Monday to a rapprochement with America.
It is worth recalling the effect of former President Jimmy Carter’s outreach to then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini during Iran’s seizure of American embassy personnel in 1979. The world’s greatest living Middle East historian Bernard Lewis wrote:
“President Jimmy Carter’s letter appealing to Khomeini as one believer to another, the American rejection of the Shah, and the unwilligness to help a former friend, all helped to convince people in Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East, that it was safer and more profitable to be an enemy rather than a friend of the United States.”
The ideological alignment of Carter and Obama says much about a flawed Iran policy that encourages hostage-taking of Americans and displays impotence during the talks to end Khomeini’s nuclear-weapons program.
Lewis correctly argued that Carter’s deference to Khomeini played a role in extending the captivity of American hostages in Tehran. Former president Ronald Regan’s muscular foreign policy is widely credited with Iran’s release of the hostages in 1981.
Fast forward to 2014.There are at least four American hostages held in Iran’s vast prison system. The Islamic Republic has showed no appetite for releasing Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, Pastor Saeed Abedini and Marine Amir Hekmati.
What might prompt a change in Iran’s behavior is a potent mix of a credible military threat with a new round of economic sanctions. Ralph Peters, a strategic analyst for Fox News and a former Military Intelligence officer, noted in his analysis on Saudi Arabia’s oil war on its chief enemy Iran:
“With the barrel price at barely 40 percent of Iran’s requirement, the economy’s going to hemorrhage. Iran’s leaders will be under far greater pressure to compromise on the nuclear weapons — unless we keep easing sanctions for nothing in return. This is the last chance for negotiations to bring results.”
Put simply, a letter-writing campaign is not a substitute for new sanctions to strangle Iran’s wobbly economy.
— Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter @BenWeinthal.