Response to letter not enough; U.S. needs to talk to Iran


May you live in interesting times, goes the old Chinese curse. Judging by the sophomoric letter apparently sent by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush, we certainly live in interesting times.

Iran and the United States — backed to some degree by most of Western Europe — are involved in a potentially deadly standoff over the Iranian regime’s nuclear development program. Few believe that a big need exists for nuclear power strictly for electricity in oil-rich Iran.

Given that Iran has nuclear-armed neighbors, that nation-states tend to see nuclear weapons as prestigious, and the calculation that possession of nuclear weapons might be seen as the best deterrent to an attack by the U.S., it would be surprising if Iran is not seeking nuclear weapon capability. The most recent statement of U.S. foreign policy identifies Iran as the most serious threat the U.S. faces, and a number of investigators have written articles alleging the U.S. is contemplating military action against Iran.

Many Americans find the prospect of a military confrontation deeply disturbing, given troubling aspects of the Iraq war and the fact that Iran is larger and militarily more capable than Iraq. And Iranians are no doubt aware that while it might be difficult or impossible for the U.S. to occupy and rule Iran, the U.S. military still has the capacity to do enormous damage. Forces on both sides, then, have an interest in defusing the current impasse with as little bloodshed as possible.

So what does the U.S. get from the president of Iran? A letter that sounds like something that might emerge from a college sophomore who has just come into contact with and been enchanted by Marxism and socialism, but with a religious accent. The letter says nothing concrete about the current crisis, but has a good deal of religious assertion and windy philosophizing about how “Undoubtedly through faith in God and the teaching of the prophets, the people will conquer their problems. My question to you is: ‘Do you want to join them?’

“If billions of dollars spent on security, military campaigns and troop movement were instead spent,” the Iranian president writes, “on investment and assistance for poor countries … combating different diseases, education and improvement of mental and physical fitness … assistance to victims of natural disasters, creation of employment opportunities … mediation between disputing states and distinguishing (presumably he meant “extinguishing”) the flames of racial, ethnic and other conflicts, where would the world be today? Would not your government and people be justifiably proud?”

Interesting times indeed.

Despite the abstract nature of this letter, it would be intelligent to begin direct talks with Iran as soon as possible. Indeed, it would have been smart to initiate such talks before this letter was written, so the United States would have had the initiative.

Whether President Ahmadinejad is craftily posturing or utterly sincere or one step off, it is the mullahs who constitute the real power in Iran, and they would not have held onto power since 1979 if they did not have a strong pragmatic streak. It is time to find out if that pragmatic bent can be turned toward defusing the current crisis.

A U.N. Security Council resolution this week offering to Iran a choice of carrots or sticks depending on how it handles its nuclear programs might be a beginning — if the resolution can gain support from Russia and China. But direct talks between the U.S. and Iran, beginning without a formal agenda, are likely to be more fruitful.

During the “long twilight struggle” that was the Cold War, the U.S. almost constantly maintained diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Finally the most unstable system — it seems like a paradox that freer countries are more stable than tyrannies, but it’s true — imploded.

For a free country, engaging with countries that pose potential threats is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It indicates confidence in the ability to use many methods — diplomacy, trade, negotiations, deep knowledge about the other side — to deal with conflicts and potential conflicts. It’s time for the U.S., despite justified doubts about the sincerity of the other side, to use all the tools at the disposal of a great power.