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Iran/U.S.: Letter Prompts Comparisons With Past, Questions About Future

By Golnaz Esfandiari

U.S. President George W. Bush says a letter from Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad fails to address international concerns about Iran's nuclear activities. In the letter, Ahmadinejad criticizes Bush on the invasion of Iraq, treatment of detainees at a U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, and support for Israel. He also suggests Bush's actions are inconsistent with his declared Christian faith. Some observers dismiss the letter as a mere public-relations stunt by Ahmadinejad. But others suggest it could present an opportunity for dialogue with the Islamic Republic.

PRAGUE, May 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- President Bush said on May 10 that the letter fails to answer the international community's burning question on Iran. That is, in Bush's words, "When will you get rid of your nuclear program?"

Ahmadinejad's letter marks the first time an Iranian president has directly and publicly contacted his U.S. counterpart since the two countries severed diplomatic ties some 27 years ago.

Curious Diplomatic Tack

But it does not resemble traditional diplomatic correspondence. The letter is closer to a moral and philosophical lecture on international affairs.

Ahmadinejad brands Western-style democracy a failure, and he urges Bush to return to religious principles.

After observing that, in his words, "people around the world are flocking toward...the Almighty God," Ahmadinejad advocates "faith in God and the teachings of the prophets" to help people overcome problems.

He then asks the U.S. president whether he wants to "join them."

Historical Precedent

For some, Ahmadinejad's letter is a reminder of another historical document: the letter sent by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989. In it, Khomeini described communism as dead and invited Gorbachev to embrace Islam.

"The letter can be likened either to the letter by Imam Khomeini to Gorbachev or, if you have a stronger imagination, it can be likened to the letters written by Prophet Muhammad to the Roman emperors and other emperors of his time to invite them to [convert to] Islam," said Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University.

Gary Sick, a professor of Middle East politics at New York's Columbia University, was the principal White House aide on the region during Iran's 1979 revolution and the hostage crisis that accompanied it. He told RFE/RL that he thinks President Ahmadinejad is following in the footsteps of Ayatollah Khomeinei.

"It is not very different from that letter," Sick said. "So, in that sense, I think Ahamdinejad sees himself as emulating his great mentor Khomeini. It's also, I think, a chance for him to demonstrate domestically that he can address the U.S. president on equal terms -- [to show] that he is not intimidated. Then, I think, there is a kind of naive underlying quality about the letter, which is [suggesting] that, 'If you only understood the realities of the situation, you would change your policy.'"

Attacking U.S. Policy

In the surprise letter, Ahmadinejad returns to themes that he has developed in past speeches. They include the existence of Israel and the Holocaust.

He also criticizes U.S. policies in Latin America and blames the United States for poverty in Africa.

In what appears to be an allusion to Iran's nuclear program, Ahamdinejad asks why "any technological and scientific achievement reached in the Middle East...is translated into and portrayed as a threat to" Israel?

The timing of the letter has led to suggestions that it could be an attempt to influence UN Security Council debate over Iran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment.

But Tehran University's Professor Zibakalam says he thinks it is unlikely that Ahmadinejad was trying to resolve the nuclear standoff.

"If that were his real purpose, then the tone and content of the letter would definitely have been different. Therefore I don't think this letter can be considered anything more than a public-relations maneuver. I don't think Mr. Ahmadinejad himself and others who came up with the idea to write this letter expected anything more from it -- or I don't think they expected any concrete reaction from the West."

Window Of Opportunity?

U.S. officials have dismissed Ahmadinejad's letter as irrelevant and far short of being "a serious diplomatic overture."

But some observers think a quick dismissal could spell a missed opportunity.

Columbia's Gary Sick suggested the letter probably signals interest on the Iranian side in opening a channel of communication with the United States.

"This was not a very good way to go about accomplishing that purpose, but I think it should be viewed in that light," Sick said. "We had a case like this when we were negotiating the end of the hostage crisis -- when the Iranian came up with what appeared to be an almost insulting offer. And our initial reaction was [that] obviously they are not serious and we might as well say that the negotiations are over. And then as we thought about it, we said, 'There are some positive elements in this letter, as well as many negative ones,' and so we said we'll pick up on the positive things and respond to those and completely ignore the negative ones. And, in fact, it worked. The negotiations picked up again, and very shortly afterward they resulted in a settlement of the issue."

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also was quoted on May 10 as suggesting the Bush administration should respond to the letter. "The Washington Post" then quoted Albright today as saying that "in diplomacy, you make your opportunities. Acting in a dismissive way doesn't get you anywhere."

Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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