May 9, 2006


Is hard-line Iran leader softening his stance? (Karl Vick, 5/09/06, The Washington Post)

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. ... " [...]

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."

"But in a way, it's something wonderful inside Iran," Sazegara said of the letter. "Over the last 27 years, whenever they arrested someone, including myself, they accused us of having contact with the Americans."

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.

Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii said the letter, depending on its contents, could represent a significant change of Iranian policy.

She said the previous Iranian government faxed a lower-level letter to the Bush administration about three years ago that was never reciprocated. And there have been secret discussions between the two governments over Iraq and Afghanistan, she said.

"Iranians may be wanting to remind the world, particularly today when the foreign ministers are meeting at the U.N., that although the U.S. talks about diplomacy, the most important [method] has not been tried, which is direct talks," she 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."

The regime can't ever be truly legitimate until the ayatollahs give up their control of who gets to run for office and over the legislative process, but if Iran were to forsake its nuclear ambitions and end all support for terrorism, we'd likely be willing to let them evolve the final few steps to normal liberal democracy. This is an opportunity it would be foolish to waste, as we have prior ones.

Iranian Writes to Bush; No R.S.V.P. Is Likely (STEVEN R. WEISMAN, 5/09/06, NY Times)
U.S. says Ahmadinejad letter to Bush has no new proposal (AP, 5/8/2006)

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki delivered the letter to the Swiss ambassador Monday, ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told the AP. The Swiss Embassy acts as a U.S. interest section in the Iranian capital.

The letter appeared as the lead item on several Iranian television and radio news shows throughout the day. The official IRNA announced the letter and carried international reaction to it. Iran's only evening daily, the state-owned Ettalaat, carried a large story on its front page under the headline: "Important letter from Ahmadinejad to the American president."

No Iranian president has written to his U.S. counterpart since 1979, when the countries broke relations after Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy and held the occupants hostage for 444 days.

On Tuesday, Ahmadinejad travels to Indonesia, where Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said "we support nuclear development for peaceful purposes, especially energy, but we consistently object to nuclear weapons proliferation."

White House Calls Iranian Letter a Ploy: Officials say the missive, apparently the first between the nations' leaders since 1979, fails to address U.S. concerns over nuclear program (Maggie Farley and Paul Richter, May 9, 2006, LA Times)
Negotiations would pose a twofold risk for the Bush administration, which does not want to lend legitimacy to a regime it wants to change and does not want to infuriate its conservative base, political analysts in Washington said Monday.

The Iranians' biggest gain through negotiations would be an assurance that the U.S. won't lead or approve an attack aimed at ousting the regime. Only the U.S. can make that promise, and the Bush administration has said all options remain on the table, implying a possible resort to military strikes.

Some of the civilian nuclear and petroleum development technology that Iran needs is available in Europe, but under U.S. licensing agreements can't be sold or lent to the Iranians without American permission.

Iran's ambassador to the U.N., veteran diplomat Javad Zarif, said last week that Tehran felt stung by what it called Washington's disregard for its past efforts to help the U.S., particularly in Afghanistan, and by the administration's refusal to remove the military option from its dealings over Iran.

"For Iran and the United States to have a dialogue, there should first be a recognition of Iran and a readiness to engage in dialogue for mutual respect," Zarif told a caller to C-SPAN on Wednesday.

It's an easy assurance to give so long as it's conditional.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 9, 2006 6:54 AM

I feel stung by Washington's disregard for Iran's current efforts in helping terrorists kill our soldiers in Iraq.

Posted by: Rick T. at May 9, 2006 9:42 AM

Listening to Gary Sick is as bad as listening to Zbig, or Robert McNamara. There's a reason CBS and CNN keep trotting these guys out.

Posted by: jim hamlen at May 9, 2006 9:51 AM

This morning I heard the letter was expressed in the form of a lecture to GWB and not taken seriously.

Posted by: Genecis at May 9, 2006 10:12 AM