By Karl Vick and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 9, 2006
ISTANBUL, May 8 -- Senior U.S. officials dismissed an 18-page letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to President Bush on Monday, saying the document that broke 27 years of official and hostile silence between leaders of the two governments contained no proposals for resolving the confrontation over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
In the letter, Ahmadinejad sharply criticized Bush on a broad range of fronts, suggesting that the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, abuses of detainees in U.S.-run facilities from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and support for Israel were inconsistent with Bush's Christian faith.
"Can one be a follower of Jesus Christ, the great Messenger of God . . . . But at the same time, have countries attacked: the lives, reputations and possessions of people destroyed," read the letter, which was delivered by Swiss diplomats, whose embassy received it in Tehran from Ahmadinejad's foreign minister. The missive was Iran's second public overture to Washington in two months, and the first originating entirely from Tehran.
"This letter isn't it," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Associated Press. "This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort. It isn't addressing the issues that we're dealing with in a concrete way. . . . It is most assuredly not a proposal."
Ahmadinejad, a hard-line conservative, declared at an April 25 news conference that he was planning to write to world leaders "and let them know about a few things." He made no specific request for direct diplomatic exchanges between Iran and the United States in the letter to Bush. Rather than specific proposals, it was more in line with an unsolicited epistle Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's theocratic system, dispatched to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in January 1989 that urged him to study Islam. Ahmadinejad, in his letter, implored Bush to return to the teachings of Christianity.
Ahmadinejad's writing and rhetoric is typically laced with ardent calls for "spirituality." With such a letter, he is following the example of the prophet Muhammad, who was known to write even to his enemies.
"Domestically, it's extremely important," said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University. "He's taking the initiative. And though it may not be important outside Iran, the leader has designated this year the Year of the Prophet."
Bush administration officials said the letter was an attempt to widen fissures in efforts by the United States and Europe to build international pressure for Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Russia and China are so far resisting the call for a U.N. Security Council vote under an article that could lead to sanctions, and conceivably military action.
Rice met in New York on Monday night with counterparts from other Security Council nations, as well as Germany and the European Union, but failed to reach agreement on a response to Iran's nuclear activities.
John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, characterized the letter as a negotiating feint. "The Iranians are always interested in talking right before somebody puts the squeeze on them," he said. "Then, once the squeeze lets up a little bit, back they go to [uranium] enrichment . . . back they go to the pursuit of nuclear weapons."
Ahmadinejad wrote that Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology was a basic right. "Why is it that any technological and scientific achievement reached in the Middle East region is translated into and portrayed as a threat to the Zionist regime," he wrote, referring to Israel.
Bolton dismissed the prospects of U.S. negotiations with Iran, saying a slew of diplomatic initiatives by other countries aimed at stalling Iran's nuclear advances over the past three years had failed to bear fruit.
Private Iranian analysts, however, called sending such a letter tactically shrewd. If Ahmadinejad proposed talks, and the Americans agreed, Iran could "buy time," said Mohsen Sazegara, an Iranian official-turned-dissident who holds a fellowship at Yale University. And if the United States refused, he added, Iran could say, "Well, we tried."
Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 1979 after militant students overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, holding 52 Americans hostage for more than a year. The two governments have had extremely limited contacts since then.
In March, Iran agreed to direct talks with the United States about Iraq, following an overture from the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad. Analysts said that move by Tehran and the letter clearly were both authorized by the ultimate authority in Iran's theocratic government, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Gary Sick, a Columbia University specialist on Iran who was a National Security Council staff member during the 1979 Iranian revolution, said Bush administration officials could be missing a chance by dismissing Iran's overtures in the name of holding together a balky alliance on the Security Council. "It's hard for me to imagine the Americans will respond positively to something that will undercut their efforts in the Security Council," Sick said.
Iranian analysts said it was unclear whether the overtures might mark the start of a significant strategic shift. Iranian politicians often speak of striking a "grand bargain" with the United States, a keystone negotiation that would unlock diplomatic relations, remove U.S. sanctions, resolve the nuclear issue and end Iran's status as a pariah state.
"The nuclear issue is the hub of all the problems here," said one political analyst in Tehran, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If they can get Western approval for Iran keeping its nuclear research activities and not move to industrial scales, then the pressure on Iran would be lifted, the economic situation would improve and there would be room and justification for the grand bargain. The regime would be legitimate."
Lynch reported from New York.