Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is pulling a slick and interesting move in US-Iran diplomacy by sending President Bush the first letter from an Iranian President to a U.S. President in 27 years.
This is clever.
The Europeans have been our interlocutors with Iran, but that hasn’t been enough. Republican Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Luger has been calling for the U.S. to negotiate directly with Iran. Democrat Joe Biden has been calling for the same. Last September at a conference I helped organize, General Wesley Clark began the drumbeat calling for direct contact with Iran. It seemed the least we could do before unleashing a wave of bombers.
In 2003, the Iranians — through the Swiss who are America’s custodians of diplomatic necessities in Iran — sent the Bush administration a one page fax suggesting a “dialogue of great civilizations.” According to one former intelligence and White House official, that fax included a roster of issues and realities on both the American and Iran side that the Iranians suggested be part of this dialogue.
Included on Iran’s list was its nuclear energy interests, its support for activities of groups like Hezbollah and other dicey issues.
We don’t know yet what is in the Ahmadinejad-Bush letter, but Ahmadinejad is calling himself for serious bilateral negotiations.
If Bush responds, perhaps we have a stunning breakthrough in the style if not the substance of interaction between the U.S. and Iran.
Bush, however, finds Ahmadinejad and Iran’s ruling mullahs repugnant. He doesn’t want to extend them legitimacy with serious engagement from his government. Bush wants regime change in Iran, but what he wants and what is possible are radically different.
If Bush responds to the Iran letter positively, there could be some serious progress in the relaxation of tensions with Iran. If he fails to respond, Ahmadinejad will win global points for creative diplomacy, and American foreign policy will continue on a clunky, self-defeating track.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be continuing some of the anti-Israel bile in some of his earlier comments, but he may also know that he needs to send a signal to the President that his government is ready to deal.
One eery thought though is that Ahmadinejad may be using this letter as his “hotline” to Bush.
When tensions got to hyper-serious levels with the old Soviet Union, one of the most important crisis-management tools that both sides embedded during the Cold War was a hotline between the national leaders of the US and USSR.
We had no such hotline with Saddam Hussein. He tried to use Dan Rather in that famous pre-invasion interview to communicate directly with Bush.
Ahmadinejad may know something we don’t. He may suspect that Bush is serious in some insane way about launching those bombers in the near term and is making sure the world sees his creative diplomacy.
We need to know the contents of the letter.
We also need to be wary of public comment from the White House — and realize that there is hopefully a secret dance, a side process going on, that is not publicly visible.
While I have no evidence, this Ahmadinejad letter may be something that was building on an earlier Kissinger-type diplomacy involving visa-less Mohammad Nahavandian about which I wrote recently.
— Steve Clemons