Perkovich: Bush Should Engage Iranian President in Dialogue, Not Back Away

George Perkovich, vice president for studies and director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that the letter from President Mahmoud Amadinejad of Iran to President Bush raising questions about American "justice" and questioning whether the United States or Iran is more righteous, should be answered in kind by the Bush administration.

May 9, 2006

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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George Perkovich, vice president for studies and director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that the letter from President Mahmoud Amadinejad of Iran to President Bush raising questions about American "justice" and questioning whether the United States or Iran is more righteous, should be answered in kind by the Bush administration, but he doubts strongly that there will be a reply.

"You know, liberal societies, liberal democracies, have a whole lot to say on their behalf in terms of justice, and we ought to have that discussion, and take it frontally," says Perkovich, who is also an expert on non-proliferation. "And so, if Iran wants to have a discussion about justice, great, let’s talk about people who are imprisoned for speaking out, let’s talk about freedom of press and association. There are lots of things that people in Iran would welcome, again couched in terms of questions of justice. We shouldn’t shy away from it. And that’s where part of the challenge of the problem is. A lot of the rhetoric that has come from the United States in talking about individual freedom doesn’t resonate as well in these cultures, compared to talking about justice, which is more of a group problem."

A most unusual letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad to President Bush has been made public in Iran. What do you make of the letter?

Well, it’s very unusual in its length and its subject matter and its tone, but it shows how confident Ahmadinejad is, and how he feels that he has a formula that he’s the man to show that Iran can go toe-to-toe with the United States. So for twenty-seven years, no Iranian leader has directly communicated with a president of the United States, and this guy basically says, "Wait, what have we been afraid of? I’ll show the Americans and the world that I’ve got a more righteous line than they do." In essence he’s saying, bring it on, we’re going to have a debate among the righteous.

Before we get into the debate among the righteous, did he say anything that would ease the problem of nuclear development?

No, there was nothing that was direct or indirect in suggesting a negotiating strategy. This was, really, I think a broader international campaign, an effort by Ahmadinejad to tap into global populism, as it were. So it was political, but then it was also saying, in essence, let’s not talk about the small things of particular disagreements, nuclear issues, terrorism, and what have you. I can stand with you as an equal and talk about big issues, like who’s the better representative of God. You President Bush believe in these principles of monotheism—he quotes Christ a lot in the letter—let’s talk about that.

There’s a kind of populist, religious thread here, isn’t there?

It’s very consistent with the platform and style of his presidential campaign, but now geared for an international audience. He talks a lot about justice, about attending to the needs of the poor, about dealing with issues of have-nots, but now he’s globalized it, so he’s talking about the world order and saying that Bush has led a U.S. policy that invaded a country, namely Iraq, on false pretenses, that was built on a lie, that has allowed the things at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib to take place, and so on and so forth. But then he broadens it and talks about economics. He says, you know, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has grown wider in the world. He challenges Bush, he says, look, we’re both presidents of countries here, and how presidents are judged is, did we intend to establish justice, or just support its special interest groups? So it’s that kind of a broad challenge. He says, liberalism and western style democracy have not been able to realize the ideals of humanity. So again, it’s that broad challenge, saying, I’m going to challenge your global position. He sounds a lot like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or Evo Morales in Bolivia, or, you know, populists in the Middle East, such as Hamas and others. So he’s tapping into all those currents.

It is a broad challenge of whose ideology, whose values actually represent the people of the world. It’s mostly framed from the standpoint of justice: who cares more about justice, about the bulk of the people, the underdog, or someone out there dominating on behalf of special interests. That argument, or that rhetoric, resonates with a lot of people.

Of course, in Iran itself, there are a lot of complaints that justice doesn’t exist, that people who criticize the government in print can get thrown in jail and are thrown in jail.

Well exactly. So my argument is, we ought to take up the challenge. And this is what I argued in the Foreign Affairs piece last year. You know, liberal societies, liberal democracies, have a whole lot to say on their behalf in terms of justice, and we ought to have that discussion, and take it frontally. And so, if Iran wants to have a discussion about justice, great, let’s talk about people who are imprisoned for speaking out, let’s talk about freedom of press and association. There are lots of things that people in Iran would welcome, again couched in terms of questions of justice. We shouldn’t shy away from it. And that’s where part of the challenge of the problem is. A lot of the rhetoric that has come from the United States in talking about individual freedom doesn’t resonate as well in these cultures, compared to talking about justice, which is more of a group problem.

Well what do you think in reality is going to happen? Is the Bush administration just going to kiss it off?

Yes. My sense is that first of all, a lot of people will just dismiss it as bizarre, which it is. In the annals of statesmanship, eighteen-page letters quoting lots and lots of biblical and Koranic proverbs, and speaking about monotheism and prophecy, that’s not the normal style of discourse. It will be dismissed by a lot of the professionals for that reason and also because there’s nothing really concrete in there. But I think that’s a mistake. I think it ought to be taken seriously, and we ought to engage it, very, very carefully, but to engage it. I’ve felt for a long time, for example, that the United States, even back in the Clinton administration, should have corresponded directly with Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader in Iran, and engaged in these points directly. Now the effort has been started by Ahmadinejad. I think the United States should respond in its own way and basically, write a letter back, both to Ahmadinejad and the constitutional head of state in Iran, which is the supreme leader. So go over Ahmadinejad’s head as well, and engage, and show that we’re not afraid to talk about principles too. And then say, "by the way, let’s talk about some specific problems that are threatening international peace and security," and get into those too.

Now do you think that he, that Ahmadinejad, actually wrote this letter, or was it sent down from Khamenei?

It reads absolutely like Ahmadinejad’s own spoken words from the campaign and other things, so it truly does read like a very personal expression. It reads much more personally even than his speech at the United Nations in September. So I think it’s his. And actually, that suggests a very interesting counterpoint. You can’t imagine, for instance, Hassan Rowhani, who was the head negotiator for Iran in the nuclear talks from 2003 until late last year, who’s a real statesman, an internationalist, a sophisticated guy, you can’t imagine him writing something like this. So you get a sense of the struggle within Iran between the people who want to integrate with the West and negotiate, and Ahmadinejad, who’s a real populist.

Does this sound like something Chavez would write?

Yes, well that’s what I mean. It’s similar to Chavez, or Fidel Castro in 1964. I mean, it’s a real, kind of aggressive, confident populism, arguing not quite in class struggles but in "have/have-not" terms. This will resonate with people, as it does resonate right now in South America, where inequality is rising, and the benefits of market liberalization haven’t been widely felt. There’s a lot of resonance. And this is true in the Middle East. And in fact, Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about Israel created a surprise. In other words, when he first started screaming at and threatening Israel, the thought was he was trying to appeal to or nurture a popular base within Iran.

And that didn’t really resonate in Iran. But what they found was that it resonated wonderfully in the Sunni Arab world. So in the Sunni Arab street, they say, finally there’s a guy who’s speaking up against Israel and denouncing Israel. Our own leaders have been so cowed by the Americans and by Israel itself that they’ve gone soft. But this guy’s actually saying what we really believe. And that he’s a Shiite and a leader of Iran, well isn’t that interesting. So he’s become a popular leader in the Sunni world, which has really alarmed Sunni elites. And in this letter, he’s reaching out again to them. So he has this long discussion about Israel, again, and about Palestine, and saying, "you know, wait a minute, Hamas was elected. These people were duly elected in democracy. How dare anybody say that now they should recognize Israel or they should have their power diminished. This isn’t why people elected them. If they had run along the principles the United States is now trying to force on them, they would never have been elected." So again, it’s this appeal to the streets, this populist appeal to Sunnis, which is very interesting.

Well, do you think there’s any debate within the Administration about whether to answer it or not?

I would actually be surprised if they answer it. I hope Bush does. But you have for six years an administration paralyzed on Iran policy, because people generally believed to be around the vice president don’t want any direct engagement or dialogue. They say, we don’t talk to people like this. So it’s hard to imagine those guys now saying, "Okay, let’s engage in a direct conversation with them," especially because the letter’s going to seem so bizarre. But again, I think it’s a mistake. I think years ago we should have initiated this kind of contact with the Iranians, rather than give them the opportunity to make the first move. Well now they’ve made it. I would guess that the administration will be kind of aloof and contemptuous, which I think is a mistake.

Moreover, we have better arguments. Liberal democracy actually has better arguments, and we should not be afraid to engage.

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