Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Iranian Letter: Using Religion to Lecture Bush

By Michael Slackman
CAIRO, May 9 — With the tone of a teacher and the certainty of a believer, the president of Iran wrote to President Bush that Western democracy had failed and that the invasion of Iraq, American treatment of prisoners and support for Israel could not be reconciled with Christian values.

Locked in a conflict with the West over its nuclear program, the Iranian, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, made the observations in a letter on Monday that the Iranian government said "raised new ways of solving problems."

The 18-page letter, whose text was made available to The New York Times by United Nations diplomats on Tuesday, did not offer any concrete proposals for dealing with the crisis, but suggested that the United States give up its liberal, democratic, secular system and turn more toward religion.

"Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems," Mr. Ahmadinejad wrote.

State Department officials said there was nothing in the letter relevant to current talks with Iran about its nuclear programs.

Though the letter was dismissed by American officials, some said it provided an interesting window into the mindset in Tehran, especially with its emphasis on grievances.

"There was not a single substantive proposal in the letter, but it was a revealing insight into their mentality," a senior State Department official said.

While the letter laid out a litany of policy disputes with the United States, it was also personal, urging President Bush, who is candid about his religious conviction, to examine his actions in the light of Christian values. As he has done in the past, the Iranian struck a prophetic tone, which is certain to be well received by his core supporters and mocked by his opponents.

"We increasingly see that people around the world are flocking towards a main focal point that is the Almighty God," he wrote. "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?' "

The letter was framed entirely in religious terms but also laid out a populist manifesto of anti-Americanism, offering illustrations of what has won the Iranian a following among many ordinary people throughout the Middle East. He presented himself as the defender not only of Muslims but of all oppressed people, including those in Africa and Latin America.

But his primary focus was on religious principles central to Shiite Islam, specifically the concept of a just ruler and the fight against oppression. With a respectful, if superior, tone, he used a question and answer style to present a case for American hypocrisy.

He seemed to try to shame President Bush when he asked: "Are you pleased with the current condition of the world? Do you think present policies can continue?"

The letter marked a significant gesture, the first direct contact between an Iranian head of state and an American president since the revolution of 1979. Mr. Ahmadinejad also left himself open to criticism that this would aggravate a nuclear showdown, and from those who see his contact with Mr. Bush as a betrayal.

The letter focused repeatedly on the notion that America is a sinner.

"My basic question is this: Is there no better way to interact with the rest of the world? Today there are hundreds of millions of Christians, hundreds of millions of Muslims, and millions of people who follow the teachings of Moses. All divine religions share and respect one word, and that is monotheism, or belief in a single God and no other in the world."

While sticking to a script of grievances against the United States, the tone also marked a shift from Mr. Ahmadinejad's past discussions. He did not use the terms "Great Satan" or "World Oppressor." And the letter did seek to identify a common ground for starting discussions.

"It would be a big mistake if the United States dismissed it or if they only consider it as a philosophical, religious, historical letter," Nasser Hadian, a political science professor at Tehran University, said by telephone. "It would be a good idea if President Bush responds to it. It can open up some space."

The letter also included many standard views of conservatives in Iran, including the comment that those responsible for planning the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, were never charged or tried, hinting darkly of conspiracy.

"Sept. 11 was not a simple operation," he wrote. "Could it be planned and executed without coordination with intelligences and security services, or with extensive infiltration? Of course, this is just an educated guess. Why have the various aspects of the attacks been kept secret?"

Since he was elected last June, the Iranian has promised to return to the principles of the revolution, and his letter echoed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who wrote to Mikhail S. Gorbachev in September 1989 that Communism was dead, and then invited him to study Islam.

Citing the war in Iraq and reports of secret prisons around Europe, Mr. Ahmadinejad argued that the United States had failed to live up to its own stated values, an argument that resonates in the streets of the Middle East.

While the notion that a head of state might write such a document may be perceived as naïve, it is another effort by Mr. Ahmadinejad to demonstrate his Everyman style.
"His letter was addressed more to young people in the Islamic world than to the American president," said Wahid Abdel Maguid, deputy director of the government-financed Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt. "He wants to play the hero, mobilizing and inciting the enthusiasm of the young people. This is not a kind of letter that a head of state sends to another."

Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting for this article.