May 9, 2006

Is hard-line Iran leader softening his stance? By Karl Vick, The Washington Post, Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - Page updated at 02:10 PM, The Seattle Times

ISTANBUL, Turkey — 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.

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."

The specifics of the text remained unknown hours after it was delivered by Swiss diplomats, whose embassy received it in Tehran from Ahmadinejad's foreign minister. The letter was Iran's second public overture to Washington in two months, and the first originating entirely from Tehran. It came as the U.S. is urging a U.N. Security Council vote this week to restrain the Islamic regime's nuclear ambitions.

In the letter, Ahmadinejad "has given an analysis of the current world situation, of the root of existing problems and of new ways of getting out of the current delicate situation in the world," said Gholamhossein Elham, a government spokesman who revealed the existence of the missive. Rice said it covered religion, history and philosophy.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush had been briefed on the letter. He would not comment on whether it was actually signed by the Iranian president.

"It does not appear to do anything to address the nuclear concerns" of the international community, McClellan said.

The Iranian government spokesman who disclosed the communication did not mention the nuclear standoff and said the letter spoke to the larger U.S.-Iranian conflict.

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." But rather than specific proposals, the letter to Bush apparently 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 1989 that urged him to study Islam.

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. ... "

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 Washington's call for a U.N. Security Council vote under an article that could lead to sanctions, and conceivably military action.

Rice was scheduled to have dinner in New York on Monday night with counterparts from other Security Council nations in another attempt to reach agreement on Iran.

John Bolton, the chief U.S. delegate to the United Nations, characterized the letter as a negotiating feint.

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."

Washington Post reporter Colum Lynch in New York contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press and Newsday.