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The president's new pen pal

The United States should use Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter as an opening to reach his country's discontented population.

Published May 15, 2006

The 18-page letter Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent to President Bush is a fascinating, stream-of-consciousness hodgepodge of history, fantasy, insult and entreaty. It doesn't deserve a formal diplomatic response, and President Bush has promised not to give it the courtesy of one. However, the letter - a rare direct contact amid escalating tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions and the U.S. military intervention in Iraq - does offer an opening for our government to begin a more constructive dialogue that can reach beyond Ahmadinejad and speak directly to the Iranian people.

That dialogue could begin by addressing head-on one of Ahmadinejad's most provocative, and least defensible, assertions: "Those with insight," Ahmadinejad wrote, "can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems."

Ahmadinejad and other puppets of authoritarian regimes around the world should not confuse the current weakness of the Bush administration with the enduring strength of democracy. Instead, it is Ahmadinejad and the reactionary clerics who prop him up who represent an anachronistic system on the verge of shattering. Their repressive manipulations have barely managed to contain the Iranian people's thirst for democratic reform. Through effective diplomacy, the Bush administration can counteract their efforts to use the nuclear crisis as a pretext for diverting the focus of Iranians' political frustrations from Tehran to Washington.

The Bush administration might also find a receptive audience in Iran - and elsewhere - if it offered an honest rebuttal to the selective view of history at the heart of Ahmadinejad's rambling letter. Ahmadinejad's offensive fantasies about subjects such as the Holocaust and 9/11 warrant a response only to the extent that they reflect more broadly held delusions in the Islamic world. But Ahmadinejad also expressed legitimate grievances about past U.S. meddling in Iran, including Washington's role in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh's elected government and our subsequent support for the authoritarian shah. By acknowledging our government's role in subverting Iranian democracy in the past, the Bush administration can connect more effectively with those who press for Iranian democracy today.

[Last modified May 15, 2006, 15:33:33]

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