Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 18-page letter to President Bush is a bizarre document. Condoleezza Rice is right to say that it fails to address any of the issues on the table. (Contrary to some initial reports, it doesn't call for talks of any sort.) Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page isn't off the mark in likening the letter's philosophical depth to that of the Unabomber's soliloquies.
And yet President Bush should publicly respond to the letter—at length and in detail. Daffy as the letter is, it does contain one clue that Ahmadinejad might really be seeking a dialogue. More to the point, many people and governments in the world, especially (but by no means exclusively) in the Muslim world, are taking the letter seriously and believe that it deserves a reply.
In short, it provides a perfect opportunity for Bush to do what he should have been doing for the last few years—to lay out what America stands for, what we have in common with Muslim nations, and how our differences can be tolerated or settled without conflict.
If such a reply leads nowhere—if it turns out that Ahmadinejad's letter is as empty as it seems on the surface—no harm will have been done. Bush can continue to step up pressure on Iran's nuclear activities. In fact, civil correspondence with the Iranian president could be touted as a sign of Bush's good intentions and his desire for diplomacy.
Bush's inclination—and that of all his top advisers—is probably to dismiss the letter as a disingenuous distraction. The letter indicts Bush for hypocrisy, praising his Christianity—and adding, "We also believe that Jesus Christ (Peace Be Upon Him) was one of the great prophets of the Almighty"—then asking how he can reconcile Christ's teachings with all the horrible things that the United States and Israel are doing in the world. In the end, Ahmadinejad forecasts the demise of "Western-style democracy" as an ideology unable to fulfill "humanity's ideals," notes the gravitation of millions toward theocratic rule, and asks Bush, "Do you not want to join them?" Western wags might reply that he already has. In any case, this is the only passage in which Ahmadinejad issues any sort of invitation.
Still, it may be worth noting that his letter opens, "Mr. George Bush, President of the United States of America" (as opposed to, say, "Supreme Devil of the Land of Infidels"). Twelve times in the course of the letter, he begins a new thought with a respectful "Mr. President …" Twice he calls Bush "Your Excellency." Never, in the 27 years since Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution, has an Iranian head of state addressed an American president directly—and so cordially, too.
The shift in tone is reminiscent of the time, in July 1988, when President Ronald Reagan sent his vice president—George W. Bush's father—to represent him at a U.N. Security Council session. A motion was on the table to condemn the United States for shooting down an Airbus jetliner filled with Iranian passengers. (The crewmen on the USS Vincennes mistook the Airbus for an incoming F-14 fighter.) Bush successfully argued that the attack was an accident, but the remarkable thing abut the session was that he referred to the "the Islamic Republic of Iran." It was the first time the U.S. government had called Iran by that name, and the Iranian delegates were impressed; they took it as a sign of respect.
It's not inconceivable that Ahmadinejad now intends his honorifics toward Bush to be taken the same way.
Or maybe he means it as a comical ruse, more reminiscent of the time when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev turned to President Jimmy Carter, at a tense moment in the SALT II arms-control talks, and whispered, "God will never forgive us if we fail." Some Kremlin aide had no doubt advised the atheist Brezhnev to play the God card with the famously devout Carter, and the ploy worked; the dispute was settled, and the treaty was signed. Then again, despite its imperfections, SALT II was a valuable accord. So, ploys aren't always a bad thing.
Regardless of Ahmadinejad's intentions, many regard the letter favorably. The Peninsula, a Qatari news site, sees it as "a taboo-breaking initiative … an opening—even if only slim—for the longtime foes to engage in a dialogue." Arab News of Saudi Arabia hails it as "remarkable and encouraging … an unexpected diplomatic opening." Germany's Der Spiegel calls it "a deft move for Ahmadinejad's image in the Middle East." Many, after all, agree with his characterization of Israel and of the contradiction between Bush's principles and actions.
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.