The first reaction of the Bush administration to the extraordinary letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been to dismiss it out of hand on the grounds that it does not offer any compromises over Iran's nuclear enrichment program. That’s a strategic mistake, because the biggest complaint of Middle Easterners about the United States is precisely that it has consistently failed to listen to concerns of the kind outlined by Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad's 18-page letter is distinctly peculiar in its tone and style. It is replete with references to the Quran and the holy prophets of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It is also remarkably courteous coming from a man who has been painted in the United States as a new Hitler precisely in order to preempt any serious dialogue or engagement.
But most importantly, the letter raises serious points which are currently matters of intense international concern and debate, and on which millions of Muslims would like to hear answers from the world's democratic superpower.
As such, Ahmadinejad's missive represents a serious challenge to the United States' government—and in particular to President George W. Bush, to whom the letter is addressed.
The White House has spent millions of dollars on public diplomacy and is forever wringing its hands over its poor performance in the battle for hearts and minds in the Middle East. Here is a golden opportunity to put that right without spending a dime. It should answer the Iranian letter seriously, point by point.
Thanks to the Internet and the blogosphere the letter has now reached millions throughout the world. Many in the Muslim world and in the Third World in general will be nodding their heads in agreement at some of the points the Iranian leader raises.
If Bush does not answer the letter, those audiences will conclude that the U.S. continues to ignore their concerns; does not feel confident that it can win the arguments on which Ahmadinejad has chosen to engage; and, is not interested in pursuing a dialogue which might lead to a peaceful resolution of the current dispute over Iran's nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad has singled out a number of specific discussion points. These include: the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq; a long history of U.S. interference in Iran's internal affairs; current U.S. efforts to prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear enrichment program (which Iran insists is for necessary civilian purposes only); Washington's penalization of the Palestinian people for voting for Hamas; and, the United States' treatment of terrorist suspects in its war on terror.
What many people around the world are now wondering is this: On any one of these issues is the United States ready to justify its policies in any terms other than its own strategic interest or its unqualified support for Israel at the expense of everyone else in the Middle East?
In essence Ahmadinejad is urging the United States to justify its policies in terms of universal justice and fairness. He is also suggesting that liberalism and Western democracy are failing to realize the ideals of humanity in the 21st century and proposing the salvation of mankind rests on building societies based on the Abrahamic religions.
What is stopping Bush from engaging in a debate with the Iranian leader on these important topics?
Here is a unique opportunity to engage in some serious "public diplomacy" in a debate which people will actually listen to.
So just how should Washington answer the Persian letter?
It might be constructive to answer Ahmadinejad by lobbing some of the issues he raises back at him. Twenty-seven years after the Islamic Republic was founded, Iran (like most Middle Eastern states, including Israel) is hardly a haven of justice and fairness, let alone of political freedom. A critique of the Islamic Republic's internal policies could be part of the answer to Ahmadinejad's letter. A staunch defense of societies based on liberalism and democracy might also appeal to a large international constituency both in the West and in the Muslim world. That would be a real dialogue of civilizations.
But mutual criticism is the easy part. The Bush administration also needs to have a long hard think about Ahmadinejad's charges that its own policies fail to measure up to reasonable standards of justice, fairness and freedom. And then it needs to justify its policies in a reasoned and cogent manner—and not just for the benefit of Ahmadinejad or even of Iranians but of the world as a whole.
Finally Bush's response to the Iranian leader's letter should propose a serious dialogue and negotiations on U.S.-Iranian bilateral relations, Iraq, Afghanistan and the nuclear issue.
A measured and thoughtful U.S. response to Ahmadinejad could bring several prizes: a much needed increase in U.S. prestige in the Middle East; a sense among Muslims that America is listening to their concerns; and not least, a diplomatic opening between the United States and Iran after 26 years of frozen relations, giving both sides a chance to climb out of their current boxed-in positions, avoid war and stabilize a troubled region.
The U.S. government has nothing to lose and everything to win in responding to the letter.
Tom Porteous is a syndicated columnist and author, formerly with the BBC and the British Foreign Office.
© 2006 TomPaine.com