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     May 11, 2006
Ahmadinejad's letter: An opening quickly sealed
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

In a stunning new development, a letter by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to US President George W Bush has stirred the diplomatic pot and added a new and, from the US point of view, untimely twist to the nuclear standoff, in light of the ongoing debates at the United Nations Security Council and the growing signs of a predictable policy quagmire.

Described by some diplomats as a "tactical masterstroke", Ahmadinejad's letter has elicited a preliminary rebuttal by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who dismissed it as a "philosophical" narrative that does not "engage the issues". It is to be hoped that Rice's negative reaction will not be echoed by

Bush, who may well connect to the religious content of the letter and its "dialogue among theologies" subtext.

According to Rice, there is "nothing in this letter that in any way addresses any of the issues that are on the table in the international community". That is strange, since the letter covers a whole array of international issues, including Third World poverty, superpower militarism, multinational exploitation, the plight of Palestinian people and, of course, Iran's right to civilian nuclear technology.

Maybe Rice does not like Iran's perception of the relevant global issues, but can she really dispute Ahmadinejad's assertion that the United States' global policies, particularly in the Middle East, have made "people of the region increasingly angry with such policies"?

"My basic question is this: Is there no better way to interact with the rest of the world?" Ahmadinejad says in his letter, and that is certainly a legitimate question to ask a US president who has refused to rule out the option of unleashing a nuclear holocaust on Iran in the name of combating Iran's alleged quest for nuclear weapons.

Fitting the description of what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida calls "arche-writing", the letter is yet another vivid representation of how Iran views the exalted place of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the international community as a vanguard of the Non-Aligned Movement. It is a highly novel enterprise, a banner development that calls for serious scrutiny and, perhaps, a reply by President Bush, outlining his own version of what has gone wrong in US-Iran relations and how to fix them properly.

Ahmadinejad's letter draws comparison with the letter of the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in early 1989, where Khomeini stated: "I openly announce that the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the greatest and most powerful base of the Islamic World, can easily fill up the ideological vacuum in your system."

Similarly, the letter by Ahmadinejad boasts about the spiritual dimension of Iran's Islamist politics and criticizes Western liberal democracy, again, recalling Khomeini's pointed criticism of West's unbounded materialism: "Materialism cannot save humanity from the crisis of disbelief in spirituality."

At the same time, compared with Khomeini's criticism of the then US president, Jimmy Carter, as a "pretend Christian" (in a letter to the pope), Ahmadinejad taps into what Samuel Huntington has termed "elements of commonality" between civilizations by pointing out Bush's similar eschatological values: "I have been told that Your Excellency follows the teachings of Jesus, and believes in the divine promise of the rule of the righteous on Earth." Overlooking such positive aspects of the letter, certain policy analysts such as Kenneth Pollock of the Council on Foreign Relations have dismissed Ahmadinejad's overture as "deeply insulting to the White House".

Consequently, the letter, by the mere seduction of its appeal in the realm of international public sphere, invades US thought and policy, invoking a Derridaian desire for a new self-image of Iran's hardline president as a "transcendental signified". Ahmadinejad writes that "it is not my intention to distress anyone", and his letter is devoid of any incendiary comments about "wiping off" the state of Israel, even though it tries to set the record straight about Israel's history of occupation of Palestinian lands and the mass displacement of millions of Palestinians, writing, "The people are also saying, 'Why are all [Security Council] resolutions in condemnation of Israel vetoed?'"

While attacking the United States' false pretext of weapons of mass destruction for the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, Ahmadinejad nonetheless concedes that "the people of the region are happy" about Saddam Hussein's downfall. He may have added that the Iranian people are also happy that the end of Saddam's one-man dictatorship resulted in a Shi'ite-led representative regime. After all, both Iran and the US support the new Iraqi government and have a shared interest in Iraq's internal stability.

Assuming that Bush bothers to respond, he may wish to point out that even in Afghanistan, the downfall of the dreaded Taliban and their replacement with a Tehran-friendly regime has benefited Iran and its national-security concerns. In that case, Bush may want to throw in a Rousseauan criticism of the "dangerous supplement" of politics by religion, in defense of liberal democracy's separation of church and religion, while at the same time responding positively to Ahmadinejad's challenging question: "Do you not think that belief in these principles [monotheism, justice, respect for human dignity, belief in the Last Day] promotes and guarantees peace, friendship and justice?" Certainly, these principles, and their underlying theme of inter-faith solidarity, promote global tolerance, listening and reciprocity, but are they sufficient guarantee of the desired results?

In some sense, Ahmadinejad's letter deconstructs itself, in its blanket dismissal of liberalism, in the section where he wonders whether the "contradictory" policies of the US government correspond with "liberal values". This is important, since there are elements of liberalism in the Islamic Republic of Iran today, such as the constitution's system of checks and balances, and its tolerance of political pluralism and religious diversity. Any conflation of the actual policies with the soundness and intrinsic value of underlying politico-philosophical principles, evinced in Ahmadinejad's letter, is indeed rather problematic.

Interestingly, Ahmadinejad's letter, criticizing the human-rights violations and the misplaced budgetary priorities of the US government (huge defense expenditures while neglecting the homeless and the victims of natural disasters), is a timely antidote to the recent flood of US commentaries and pending legislation that dissect and interfere in Iran's internal politics in the name of democracy and human rights.

Indeed, if the US allows itself unlimited say in Iran's domestic affairs, why shouldn't the Iranians reciprocate in kind, particularly when Ahmadinejad's critical comments correspond with those of many civil-rights leaders in the United States today? Clearly, in today's globalized village marked by unprecedented interdependencies across national frontiers, it is impossible to insulate any government's policies and priorities from international scrutiny, and that applies to both Iran and the US.

Another important aspect of Ahmadinejad's letter is that it reminds everyone that Iran has forcefully condemned the atrocities of September 11, 2001, which flies in the face of certain pro-Israel pundits in Washington who have made outlandish accusations of Iran's complicity in the tragedy.

Ahmadinejad writes, "September 11 was a horrendous incident. The killing of [the] innocent is deplorable and appalling in any part of the world. Our government immediately declared its disgust with the perpetrators and offered its condolences to the bereaved and expressed its sympathies."

This is no pseudo-diplomatic put-on for public relations purposes. In September 2001, both former president Mohammad Khatami and his foreign minister, Kemal Kharrazi, addressed the UN and condemned the atrocities in the strongest language. Subsequently, a Security Council committee on al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the associated individuals and entities praised Iran's collaboration with that committee by providing invaluable information on Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives.

The letter and the nuclear standoff
Ahmadinejad's letter contains yet another Iranian reassertion of the right to possess civilian nuclear technology, deriding Western opposition as a throwback to the "Middle Ages". He asks: "Can the possibility of scientific achievement being criticized for military purposes be reason enough to oppose science and technology altogether?" Certainly not, in light of Iran's concrete proposal for the International Atomic Energy Agency's close inspection of Iran's nuclear activities. As the Russian foreign minister stated recently, the mere suspicion of Iran's military misuse of its nuclear program is not sufficient to impose sanctions and curb nuclear cooperation with Iran.

Unfortunately, Secretary Rice and the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, have chosen to disregard completely the olive branch in Ahmadinejad's letter and, instead, mischaracterize the letter as dust in the eyes of diplomats, to paraphrase Bolton. But it is more like eye drops clearing the diplomatic fog that precludes an intimate knowledge of Iranian religio-political world view, wherein theological underpinnings of policymaking reign supreme.

Ahmadinejad's extensive use of Koranic verses in his letter is yet another reminder that a main problem in US-Iran diplomacy may be none other than speaking through contrasting paradigms, causing distorted communication. Thus an inter-paradigmatic dialogue channeled through inter-faith discussions and discourses may be necessary, as a healthy "nearing" of the parties closer together across their huge political-paradigmatic divide.

Among other things, the US should start paying close attention to the political importance of Iran's religious declarations against the manufacturing and deployment of nuclear weapons, instead of habitually dismissing these as signs of a rhetorical camouflage.

Already criticized by Iran's hardline politicians as an unnecessary concession to the United States, Ahmadinejad's letter is tantamount to a bolt of lighting in the hitherto dark sky of US-Iran diplomatic alienation since 1979. It is up to the US now to decide whether or not to seize the new opportunity for a major opening with Iran afforded by this letter.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He is also author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction.

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Beyond the bluster: Iran at a crossroads (May 6, '06)

Ahmadinejad on the warpath (Feb 18, '06)

Meet President George W Ahmadinejad (Aug 17, '05)


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