Middle East


U.S.-Iran Relations Remain Unsettled

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shakes hands with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during their bilateral meeting in Shanghai, China. The meeting took place in a summit organized by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a security grouping anchored by Russia and China, which has styled itself as a counterweight to U.S. global dominance. (Photo: Dmitry Astakhov / AFP-Getty Images)

Twenty-seven years of diplomatic silence between the U.S. and Iran ended on May 8 when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote an 18-page letter to his American counterpart. It was a surprising attempt at communication which headlined newspaper articles around the world, but was described as "worthless" by White House authorities.

Nevertheless, after a number of contradictory reports, eventually the White House indicated that it was prepared for direct talks — a giant step and an unexpected turn in Washington's hard-line policy, marking a potential starting point for a new series of overtures in the Iran-U.S. relations seesaw.

But how did it happen that Ahmadinejad, with the support of the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ali Khamenei, who had always been the number one foe of Tehran-Washington direct talks, would write and send such a letter? On the other side, how come President George Bush, who considers Iran the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism, opted to participate in talks?

The letter was written during the peak of tensions between the two nations over Iran's controversial nuclear enrichment program, and how it should be dealt with by the U.N. Security Council. There were whispers about possible U.S attacks against Iran, outlined in Seymour Hersh's New Yorker article. It was a very tough time for Iranian diplomats both inside and outside the country. Some observers felt that the letter was written only to avoid being attacked. But even given that conclusion, many believed that it should at minimum initiate some dialogue between the two countries.

Publicly, U.S. officials from the president on down, dismissed the letter from the beginning because it had not dealt with the troubling issue of Iran's apparent determination to join the nuclear club.

Bush said in an interview, "It looks like it did not answer the main question that the world is asking, and that is: 'When will you get rid of your nuclear program?'"

U.N. Security Council Deadlock

It was a difficult period for the White House as well. Discussions over the Iran nuclear issue were at a stalemate in the United Nations, with open disagreement between some of the permanent members of the Security Council. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov had already warned U.S. that Iran could do what North Korea did in 2003 — throw out inspectors and abandon the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). That would close the biggest window of opportunity into deciphering Iran's program, making it hard to assess its poential bomb-making capability.

It was at this time that while direct Washington-Tehran talks had repeatedly been rejected by U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, The New York Times noted that, "discussions have begun among the high ranking officials of the White House."

In the U.S., even names of some noted Republicans such as former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, along with senators Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel, appeared among the supporters of direct talks.

Then on May 31, Rice publicly announced that the White House was ready to begin direct talks with Tehran.

The fact is that Ahmadinejad picked the most opportune time to pen his letter. It came right at a period when the Security Council had become helplessly deadlocked. On one side stood Britain, France and the U.S., who sought a resolution under Chapter Seven of the U.N. charter, making it possible to enforce sanctions and even military action as the last resort. On the opposite side were Russia and China, strongly insisting that contemplating military action was ridiculous, and that economic sanctions would only worsen an already complicated situation.

Russia and China might have decided to play their 'veto card' in the Security County if the matter of sanctions came to a vote. Secretary of Russia's National Security Council Igor Ivanov, recently asserted this option after Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the West of being paranoid about Iran's atomic intentions.

Historical Letter

At this crucial point came Ahmadinejad's 'historical' letter to Bush — a letter of debatable political value, which was not in the usual format for literature of diplomacy; a letter that addressed "Mr. George Bush, President of the United States of America" at the beginning and ended with an Arabic Islamic statement written in Latin letters, "Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda" (Hail to the instructed ones), and signed with the name of "Mahmood Ahmadi-Najad President of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

That was essentially it, with not much in between except for sermons replete with religious and moral advise.

But after all, it was the first direct contact between the two-decades-long enemies — a member of "The axis of Evil" had actually written to "The great Satan."

Regardless of the letter's content, the event itself was so big that it stirred news sources around the world. Even before the publication of the text, when the mystery of "what is on the paper" was resolved, the act itself caused the price of oil to decline by $5 a barrel.

The sending of the letter resounded in Europe, with many politicians on the continent greeting the idea of direct talks warmly. Madeline Albright, former U.S. secretary of state, and Joschka Fischer, former German foreign minister, were among the very first international figures to acknowledge that the time for direct negotiations had come. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called on the White House to change its policy and accept the talks.

Inside Iran, a large number of  key opposition figures also backed the initiation of direct talks. The secretary general of the Freedom Movement opposition party Ebrahim Yazdi, although lambasting the letter's content, saw it as a message which should not be left unanswered by Washington. Iranian government authorities likewise encouraged a break in the long-standing impasse between the two countries.

Top Iranian leaders and influential officials when asked about the matter, directly and indirectly indicated that they were willing to hold "any negotiations with any country." Foreign Minister Manoochehr Mottaki said that Iran would not avoid holding talks with U.S., "provided that it change its behavior," as a political gesture. At last, supreme leader  Ali Khamenei assented to direct dialogue. The curse had been broken in Iran.

NPT Accusations Untrue

Now it was the U.S. side which was still doubtful. The world's eyes now turned to the West. However, Washington shied away from discussions concerning peaceful negotiations. Their accusations against Iran did not jibe with the NPT, which stated that Iran indeed had the right to pursue nuclear technology, and no evidence existed which supported American accusations regarding their nuclear weapon ambitions.

It should be noted that the United States had not overtly protested against the fact that Pakistan, while denying it was doing so, developed a nuclear stockpile. Neighboring India also possesses nuclear weapons.

Israel secretly developed a nuclear stockpile — the only nation in the troubled Middle East to do so — and there were no protests from the U.S.

None of these three nations — Pakistan, India or Israel — has signed the NPT. Iran, however, has signed the treaty. Its claims that it has the right to enrich uranium for reactors that generate electricity are factual.

So, in the final analysis Ahmadinejad made his point to the world through the "worthless" long letter of sermons, whether it was his true intention or not. For a while, many viewed the letter as an olive branch of peace which was rejected by the U.S.

It was at that point Rice made her public statement accepting the talks. The acceptance represented a receiving hand reaching for the olive branch, but only on one condition: Iran must freeze all its nuclear activity before any negotiations got underway. It was the very thing that Iranian officials had made very clear that they were unwilling to do.

Ahmadinejad and foreign minister Manoochehr Mottaki ruled out halting the nuclear enrichment process, and called the precondition "ridiculous." Now the ball is back at 'square one,' and once more it is Iran that is confronting hostile U.S. statements.

As for the issue of direct talks between Tehran and Washington, with Bush's demand that Iran give up nuclear enrichment, and Iran's insistence that it will give up nothing, the U.S-Iranian dialogue may never begin in earnest.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Niusha Boghrati.