However the dispute over Iran's nuclear program is settled, Bush will need to convince other nations—not only in the Security Council but throughout the Middle East—that his case against its legitimacy is valid. If economic sanctions or military action become necessary, he will attract more allies—or at least fewer enemies—if he can show he gave diplomacy every chance. One thing he must do in any case—and that he has failed to do so far—is to persuade the rest of the world that the case against Iran is not part of some global campaign against Islam. Ahmadinejad's letter paints precisely this picture. It's time for Bush to paint his own picture. How better to do so than in the guise of a civilized reply to Ahmadinejad? The message would be grounded in a specific context, not appearing out of nowhere as vague propaganda. It would demonstrate that he's willing to engage with Muslim leaders. And it might have a bonus of advancing a diplomatic way out of Iran's nuclear standoff.
If Bush doesn't reply to the letter, he will unavoidably give the impression that he's simply not interested in talking. And the impression seems to reflect the reality. Flynt Leverett, a Middle East specialist formerly with the National Security Council and the CIA, recently told the Council on Foreign Relations that, in the spring of 2003, just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration received a message from the Iranian government—sent through the Swiss Embassy, a long-standing intermediary—laying out a diplomatic agenda to resolve all the differences between the two countries.
Bush ignored the message—and, in fact, criticized the Swiss government for passing it along. According to Leverett, Bush regarded the Iranian regime as "fundamentally illegitimate"; to communicate with it would be to legitimize it.
Of course, that was then. Bush was riding high on what seemed to be a military victory in Iraq. Those around him were envisioning a cascade of regime change to come, perhaps next stop Tehran. At the same time, this flush of American triumph was what probably spurred the Iranians to propose comprehensive talks. Now the picture has changed. Bush has lost nearly all leverage in Iraq. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad thinks that he holds the stronger hand, thanks to the high prices for oil, his enrichment of uranium, and his ties with the emerging Shiite regime next door. Will Bush take a gamble on a diplomatic solution—or does his insistence on regime change, however fanciful at this point, trump all else? Does Ahmadinejad still want to make a deal—or does he think he's now so strong he can dictate his own terms?
Bush and Ahmadinejad—two of the world's most stubborn, self-righteous leaders. It's at once hopeful and pathetic that the next step in their confrontation—whether it intensifies or slackens—could be determined by whether Bush answers or brushes off a goofy letter.