It may be tempting to dismiss Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush this week as yet another 11th-hour attempt to derail U.N. Security Council unity in dealing with the Iranian nuclear crisis (as John Negroponte has alleged), but the Iranians aren't particularly worried about the Russians and Chinese falling into line with the U.S position. After all, Dick Cheney already did some of their work for them last week. Mr. Cheney's harangues against Russia on a trip to Eastern Europe and Central Asia last week, suspect in terms of its timing if not its lack of diplomatic language, virtually guaranteed that the Russians would balk at U.S. entreaties to join its quest for U.N. Chapter 7 resolution on Iran. (Why, at precisely the time his administration is attempting to bring the Russians aboard for action against Iran, Mr. Cheney would launch into one of the most anti-Russian speeches given by any U.S. official during the Bush administration is a good question and one that has not really been addressed much in the media. It's not for me to say whether Mr. Cheney is by himself intentionally sabotaging Security Council unity, or whether it is in fact Bush administration policy to ensure failure at the U.N. under the pretense of making every effort to make it work, but whatever the motivations, Mr. Cheney's anti-Russian diatribe was not only supremely hypocritical (publicly lecturing Russia on democracy and human rights, coming from someone who believes the less of it we have at home the better), but sure to make the Russians hold firm on their stand that Iran is not at present, as a Chapter 7 resolution would require, a threat to the peace and stability of the world.)
President Ahmadinejad's letter, which has not been made public by either the Iranian government or the U.S., was delivered on the day that Condoleezza Rice was to host a dinner for the foreign ministers of the P-5 (Permanent Members of the Security Council) to discuss U.N. action on Iran. One minister that Condi was expecting at dinner was Jack Straw, who due to a cabinet reshuffle by Tony Blair couldn't make the trip, replaced by new Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, someone with conveniently no Iran (or even much foreign) experience. Convenient, I say, because unlike Mr. Straw, she is not likely to shoot off her mouth about the idea of the idea of a nuclear attack on Iran being "nuts", nor is she immediately going to be particularly helpful in persuading the Russians and the Chinese, let alone the Iranians, that the U.K. position may be a little more flexible than (or that the U.K. may use its influence to soften) the American. Although some papers in England have questioned whether Straw was demoted for his forceful denials of potential military action (and Mr. Blair has denied any such motivation), one still has to wonder whether such a move was even wise (given that Mr. Straw's experience would have well served a diplomatic solution to the crisis) if Britain really wants a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.
Nevertheless, within hours of receiving Ahmadinejad's letter, both the White House and Ms. Rice separately dismissed it as containing nothing new and not being an overture. Described by the administration as containing "history, philosophy and religion", and according to Ms. Rice, "not a diplomatic opening", the swift dismissal of the letter is only further indication that the U.S. is not interested in a diplomatic solution to U.S.-Iran relations or to the nuclear issue. While it is undoubtedly true that the timing of its delivery was intended by Iran to complicate Security Council deliberations, it should not be dismissed quite so quickly as merely an Iranian gambit to influence a U.N. vote. The significance of an Iranian leader writing to a U.S. President under any circumstances is huge; for Mr. Ahmadinejad to do so is groundbreaking. President Ahmadinejad would have had to receive Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's blessings to even contemplate such a thing, so the White House should, rather than characterize it as not being an overture, look at it as precisely that.
For Iran to make any public contact with the U.S. (and at such a high level) after twenty-seven years is in itself an overture, even if all the letter says is "Mr. Bush, please convert to Islam. Shia Islam, preferably. Yours Truly, Mahmoud." The Iranian regime has based its entire credibility; with its own population, with the Islamic world, and with the Third World on its independence from U.S. hegemony and as non-aligned but proud nation that deserves the respect of the world. A sudden and open embrace of even the idea of talking to the "Global Arrogance", formerly known as the "Great Satan", should not be taken lightly. Of course the letter contains "history, philosophy and religion", Condi: Iranians are proud of their history (and resentful of America's involvement in it), they are proud of their philosophers and poets, and the government is, after all, a religious one. If anyone at the White House or the State Department knew anything about Iranians, they would know that a desire to talk about these things with the U.S. is indicative of a genuine willingness on the part of Iran's leadership to begin a dialogue with the United States that might lead to better relations and, of course, a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, even if that isn't mentioned directly in the letter.
There's a word in Farsi that has no proper translation into English but that every Iranian knows the meaning of: ta'arouf. Ta'arouf is social convention in Iran; it can be nothing but small talk, or frustratingly incomprehensible back-and-forth niceties uttered in any social encounter. It can be a long-winded prelude to what is actually the matter at hand, whether the matter be a serious negotiation or just ordering dinner. It can also be polite entreaties, or overtures, and on all counts Mr. Ahmadinejad just made ta'arouf to Mr. Bush. For Mr. Bush to refuse to counter-ta'arouf may, to the Iranians, seem extremely rude, but Americans need not be concerned with that. What Americans need to be concerned with is whether there is anything, and I mean anything, that will change the minds of the men who want to go to war.
UPDATE (5/9/06): The French daily Le Monde has released what is purported to be the exact wording of the text of Mr. Ahmadinejad's letter. It can be read here.