Ever since the inauguration of Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani, the United States has been engaged in a covert dialogue with Islamic Republic leaders, aimed at reviving the stalled P5+1 talks. Iran is planning to send an unusually large delegation to New York City for the upcoming United Nations General Assembly session, including prominent members of the Majlis national security committee. Obama Administration officials are debating whether to hold an officially announced sit-down with the Iranians in New York.
President Obama has sent a personal letter to President Rouhani, welcoming his election but also warning Iran against any reprisals should the U.S. launch punitive strikes against Syria for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack at Ghouta.
According to sources in Washington , the National Security Agency intercepted communications between top officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Al Quds Brigade and terrorist cells inside Iraq, ordering retaliatory actions if the U.S. attacked Syria. Based on those intercepts, Obama Administration officials warned Iran against the consequences of any action by Al Quds or Hezbollah in revenge for U.S. strikes on Syria.
The U.S. Intelligence Community is also monitoring several sites inside Iran that have been identified as “terrorist training camps” drawing in Shi’ites from around the world for 6-8 week training. Until Iran shuts these facilities, the U.S. will block Iranian participation in any future Geneva II conference on Syria.
The same Washington sources confirm that the Iranians responded with assurances that there would be no reprisal, noting that the Iranian people had experienced the horrors of chemical weapons during the 1980s war with Iraq. The U.S. reaction was cautious. Several Intelligence Community officials warned that the IRGC may be operating behind Rouhani’s back, with the tacit approval of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Rouhani was already facing significant backlash from hardline factions that still remain powerful despite the electoral defeat, including IRGC groupings that still have a vice-grip on much of the Iranian economy.
When President Obama cancelled the planned strikes on Syria and reached a deal with the Russians and the Syrians to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons, this boosted Rouhani’s standing inside the Islamic Republic leadership, including with Khamenei.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif is negotiating with Catherine Ashton, European Union Foreign Minister over the time and venue of the next round of P5+1 talks. At this point, plans are to resume the talks in New York City, a clear indication that the Obama Administration has a strong stake in their success.
Obama’s top political strategists—Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and Denis McDonough—have prioritized the Iran negotiations, as a crucial part of Obama’s presidential legacy. He wants to leave office, having both avoided a war with Iran and eliminated the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon.