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Obama's Secret Letter To Iranian Leader Details Shared Interest In Fighting ISIS


Is Washington proposing a realignment in the Middle East? - A de facto alliance with Shiite Iran against the Sunni Muslim extremist of ISIS. Well, that question arose this week when the Wall Street Journal reported on a secret letter sent in October by President Obama to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Jay Solomon of the Journal broke that story and joins us now. What did the president say in his letter to Iran's top cleric?

JAY SOLOMON: I mean, the main points are that we have shared interests in combating ISIS. It poses a threat to the U.S. and to our allies and it poses a threat to Iran and its allies. And it makes that point, but it also really focuses on this idea that any significant cooperation between Iran and the United States is contingent upon this agreement being reached by November 24. So it was really kind of two-fold, raise the prospect of cooperating on ISIS, but also the importance of resolving the nuclear issue.

SIEGEL: Does this letter confirm what Sunni Muslims in the region claim, that the U.S. is willing to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain in power if the al-Qaeda linked jihadist groups that oppose him are defeated. Perhaps with Iranian help.

SOLOMON: I mean, this is a dynamic that's been out there before this letter for Mr. Obama. They appointed General Allyn to be this - the czar of the fight against ISIS and he has been openly telling allies and others that the U.S. airstrikes in Syria are not going to target the Assad regime, so there is a lot of concern amongst our Sunni allies, five of whom, who have formally joined the fight against ISIS, said the U.S. has kind of- they're going to go after these Sunni groups, but they are not going to go after the Assad regime even though President Obama's stated policy still sis that Assad must go.

SIEGEL: How would you describe Saudi or Israeli reaction to news of the Obama letter to Khamenei?

SOLOMON: I mean, there's been mounting concern anyways that the terms of the nuclear agreements are getting soft. Then you see these kind of potential strategic convergence of interest and maybe cooperation and it makes the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, primarily and Israel very nervous that there's some realignment going that is going to allow Iran to maintain the ability to make nuclear weapons. while at the same time not cutting off their support for various groups in the region and if sanctions get lifted it will be a much more powerful Iran because they are in a very weak state right now financially.

SIEGEL: The White House - White House spokesman Josh Earnest has been at pains to say that, yes, U.S. and Iranian officials have discussed ISIS on the sidelines of the nuclear talks. But the Nuclear talks remain the center ring. That's the most important thing. Is that fairly accurate?

SOLOMON: I don't know. I mean there's been increased blurring over the last few months since I ISIS gained these territories. First it was the formation of a new Iraqi government and some of these other military issues, so it's kind of grown from there. But the White House is not entirely accurate when they're saying there's no coordination. I mean, we've been reporting for weeks that messages are being passed through the Iraqi government to Iran about some of the activities the U.S. is doing militarily. And it's been told to the Iranians and the Syrians that we're not targeting Assad. So there is some sort of coordination and in return we reported last week that the Iranian Revolutionary guards have basically told Shiite militias inside Iraq not to target U.S. forces or U.S. personnel operating inside Iraq. So it feels like there are steps towards detente and I think that's part of what Obama was hitting at that letter. The question is will this deal be forged and allow it to really go forward or does it collapse in part because the supreme leader of Iran doesn't want some reproach with the U.S? His regime might not be able to survive that.

SIEGEL: Jay Solomon thank you for talking with us.

SOLOMON: Thanks. Appreciate it.

SIEGEL: Jay Solomon, foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, talking with us about his story this week about the secrete letter from President Obama to Iran's supreme leader that was sent in October. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.