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U.S. Ignores Ahmadinejad's Letter

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
Updated May 10, 2006


The presidents of Iran and the United States make unlikely pen pals. The two countries have had no official direct contact in twenty-seven years, and the war of words between the two has left little room for diplomacy. Yet President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in an unusual move, sent President Bush a letter via the Swiss embassy in which he invokes religion—particularly the president's Christian heritage—while calling for "new solutions" to resolve the nuclear crisis (NYT). White House officials refused to respond to the letter, which they say was not a serious attempt to strike a dialogue (LAT), but Carnegie's George Perkovich argues in this interview with CFR's Bernard Gwertzman that the administration would be wise "to take up the challenge" and answer Ahmadinejad directly.

The letter comes amid renewed calls by some, including former national security adviser Samuel Berger and Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), to reengage directly with Iran's government to defuse the crisis by diplomatic means. "The continued unwillingness of the U.S. to engage Iran will make other [UN Security Council] states hesitate to support, and possibly oppose" stricter actions like sanctions, Hagel wrote in the Financial Times. Further, he urges Washington to negotiate not just on the nuclear issue but on other pressing concerns, including Iran's support of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iraq's Shiite militias, as well as on issues related to longstanding U.S. sanctions against Tehran, security guarantees, and reintegrating Iran back into the international community. "Iran's hardliners, not the U.S., need to be seen as the obstacle to fulfilling its people's aspirations," Berger wrote in the Wall Street Journal. An April 5 CFR symposium on Iran outlines all the possible scenarios for dealing with Tehran.

The foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany are meeting in New York this week to hammer out a resolution calling for Iran to suspend its nuclear activities. One official present said the prospects for an agreement, given China and Russia's reservations on punishing Tehran, "are not substantially good (al-Jazeera)." Yet Great Britain, France, and Germany—backed by the United States—said they are prepared to offer an "ambitious package" of economic incentives, which would include expanded commercial ties and energy guarantees, if Tehran agreed to halt its uranium-enrichment activities (WashPost). This CFR Background Q&A examines the effects incentives or sanctions would have on Iran's lagging economy.

The meeting comes on the heels of an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, which faults Iran for failing to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities by the April 28 deadline. French President Jacques Chirac has called for a "resolution with teeth," referring to one that invokes Chapter Seven powers, which give the Security Council legal authority to levy economic sanctions or, if necessary, order a military strike should negotiations fail (Independent).

Tehran has taken a more defiant tone after announcing last month that it had acquired the ability to enrich low-level uranium. Recently, Iran threatened to pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and refuse all cooperation with the IAEA should the Security Council choose to adopt a tougher resolution against Tehran (LAT).

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