Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent an unexpected letter to President Bush on Monday, in what was seen as an overture for direct talks about Tehran’s nuclear program, but U.S. officials dismissed the missive as an eleventh-hour ploy to forestall punitive action by the United Nations.
The letter is thought to be the first direct communication between the two countries’ leaders since Iranian militants overthrew the shah and took Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in 1979. Diplomats hoped the letter signaled a new willingness on Iran’s part to address the standoff over its uraniumenrichment program, which the Islamic Republic says is for peaceful energy purposes, but which much of the West suspects is a cover for trying to build nuclear weapons.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Associated Press that the letter did not contain serious proposals on the disputed nuclear program, but covered history, philosophy and religion over 17 or 18 pages.
The missive, passed on to the White House by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran because the U.S. has no presence there, also contained a litany of grievances and a demand to be treated as an international power, U.S. officials said.
“This letter isn’t it. This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort,” Rice said. “It isn’t addressing the issues that we’re dealing with in a concrete way.”
Bush, traveling to Florida, was briefed on the letter’s contents. “It does not appear to do anything to address the nuclear concerns” of the international community, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters on Air Force One.
An Iranian official quoted by the state-run Fars News Agency characterized the letter from Ahmadinejad as an offer to address tensions.
“In this letter, while analyzing the world situation and pinpointing sources of problems, he has introduced new ways for getting out of the current, fragile international situation,” government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham said. The spokesman didn’t say whether the letter addressed Iran’s nuclear program.
As Rice prepared to meet counterparts from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union on Monday night about how to deal with Iran’s refusal to stop its nuclear activities, U.S. officials said they didn’t even want to talk about talking to Iran.
“We don’t have anything to say to Iran until they give up their pursuit of nuclear weapons,” said John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. “Iranians are always interested in talking right before everyone puts the squeeze on them.... Then once the squeeze lets up a little bit, back they go to enrichment, back they go to perfecting their conversion technology, back they go to the pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
But Iran’s approach may add to mounting pressure on Bush from U.S. allies and some Congress members to engage in direct talks with Tehran before resorting to sanctions or military action.
The Security Council this week is considering a resolution that would pave the way for sanctions or military action if Iran fails to halt nuclear activities.
Russia and China, which have veto power on the council, say that they are worried about Iran’s intentions, but believe there is time for a diplomatic solution before reaching for harsher measures. China said Monday that it would not support any language that included military action.
“The U.S. is thinking we should exhaust the stick before we try the carrot, and the international community is thinking we should exhaust the carrot before we try the stick,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank in Washington.
The prevailing attitude in Washington, Sadjadpour said, is: “Why should we reward Iran’s bad behavior by talking to it when we haven’t in the past? It would be conferring legitimacy on the regime. And why reward them for things they should be doing anyway?”
For months, European leaders have quietly pressed the Bush administration to join multilateral talks with the Iranians.
“The only way out is for the two directly involved countries to talk to each other,” said a senior non-Western official in Vienna who has been following negotiations closely. “Without this, some kind of direct discussion between the two, this issue is not going to get resolved and people are going to be saying this [was a failure] for years.”
The idea of direct talks has circulated in Washington for some time, with pressure mounting in recent weeks. Over the weekend, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said talks should be considered, joining a chorus that includes Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and other leading figures of both parties.
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has also called for direct talks. The Russians and Chinese are considered to be in favor of the idea, along with the British, Germans and French, to varying degrees.
“The administration is being bombarded with this idea,” said Gary Samore, who was President Clinton’s top nonproliferation aide and is now a vice president of the MacArthur Founda tion. “They’re bombarded by it privately from all of our allies, and from outside of government in every op-ed you read.”
Negotiations would pose a twofold risk for the Bush administration, which does not want to lend legitimacy to a regime it wants to change and does not want to infuriate its conservative base, political analysts in Washington said Monday.
The Iranians’ biggest gain through negotiations would be an assurance that the U.S. won’t lead or approve an attack aimed at ousting the regime. Only the U.S. can make that promise, and the Bush administration has said all options remain on the table, implying a possible resort to military strikes.
Some of the civilian nuclear and petroleum development technology that Iran needs is available in Europe, but under U.S. licensing agreements can’t be sold or lent to the Iranians without American permission.
Iran’s ambassador to the U.N., veteran diplomat Javad Zarif, said last week that Tehran felt stung by what it called Washington’s disregard for its past efforts to help the U.S., particularly in Afghanistan, and by the administration’s refusal to remove the military option from its dealings over Iran.
“For Iran and the United States to have a dialogue, there should first be a recognition of Iran and a readiness to engage in dialogue for mutual respect,” Zarif told a caller to C-SPAN on Wednesday.
Bush is likely to come under additional pressure to consider talks with Iran when he meets with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and other world leaders during the July meeting of the G-8 leading industrialized nations in St. Petersburg, Russia, Samore said.
Foreign diplomats and outside analysts suggested that it would be easier for the U.S. to take part as one of a group of nations, as it has done over the North Korean nuclear program.
Critics note, however, that the six-nation talks that include North Korea have made little progress.
“It would be very much like the other six-party talks -- a listing to port for a very long time, before you fail,” said Henry Sokolski, a defense official under President George H.W. Bush who is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.
Farley reported from the United Nations and Richter from Washington. Times staff writer Alissa J. Rubin in Vienna contributed to this report.