Michael Spies

By now the initial bewilderment caused by Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s infamous letter to President Bush has receded back into the stream of the never-ending news cycle. For those who haven’t taken the time to read it, the synopsis in the media was more or less accurate. On the whole the letter was a meandering theological and philosophical tract, appealing to Bush’s oft-professed monotheistic values, and in essence inviting Bush to see the light and to practice what he preaches. It also contained lengthy diatribes against U.S. foreign policy.

Most commentators in the U.S. were quick to dismiss the letter. While the letter does stray pretty far from the norms of polite, diplomatic correspondence, quick dismissal reveals an unwillingness to understand or to even acknowledge the presence in the world of alternative modes of philosophical, cultural, and political discourse. Coming from most other corners of the world such casual disregard reflects little more than cultural bigotry. Coming from the U.S., in light of its global military and political preeminence, it can reflect a certain imperial hubris.

On the subject of imperialism, I recently heard historian Ervand Abrahamian’s take on the Iran nuclear dispute, framed within the context of Iran’s historical struggles against imperial powers. A professor at the City University of New York, Abrahamian spoke at an over-packed teach-in on April 26 at Judson Church in Manhattan, “Stopping the War Before It Starts: What We Need to Know to Resist A War Against Iran.” The event was sponsored by Action Wednesdays against War. In 2005 Abrahamian wrote a prescient short commentary, “Iran: The Next Target?.” He is currently working on two books for Cambridge University Press, The CIA Coup in Iran and A History of Modern Iran. According to Abrahamian, the heroes in Iranian historiography are those who refused imperialist ultimatums, and therefore it is hard for any Iranian government to submit to such ultimatums.

Indeed, the heroes in the history of modern Iran have been those leaders who stood up to the imperial powers, exemplified by the former Prime Minister Mossadegh, who nationalized the Iranian oil industry in 1951 and was overthrown by the CIA two years later. The villains are those leaders who capitulated, exemplified by the Shah, whom many Iranians viewed as a puppet of the Americans and British.

Regarding the letter, there is a precedent in Iranian and Islamic history for similarly styled correspondences addressed to the major power of the day, inviting their leaders to “see the light”. Before his death, the Prophet Mohammed sent a letter to the emperor of Byzantine and the Shah of Iran inviting them to convert to Islam. The first supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, sent a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, which appears to have been a template for Ahmadinejad’s letter. A New York Times article recently detailed some of the superficial similarities between Ahmadinejad’s letter and Khomeini’s letter, which suggested that the ills of the Soviet Union stemmed from a lack of religion and invited the Soviet leader to convert to Islam.

Ahmadinejad’s letter serves multiple purposes. For domestic Iranian political consumption, by following the tradition of letter writing he is, quite remarkably, seeking to place himself amongst the constellation of Iran’s most revered religious leaders despite his non-clerical background. While such a move might bolster the president’s image and influence within the Islamic militias and clerical factions that are already partial to him, the religious posturing in the letter has likely fallen flat or worse for the more secularized populace and for reform-minded clerics. The letter also represents Ahmadinejad’s attempt to cast himself in the same light as the great nationalist heroes of Iranian history.

Taking into account the context of Iran’s history and culture, the specific content of the letter does not matter as much as that it was sent. Moreover, beyond its function as a piece for domestic consumption, the letter does have potential significance for US-Iranian affairs. As the media has noted, the letter marks the first correspondence between the heads of government of both countries since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. While the Bush Administration quickly derided the letter for not offering any new proposals regarding the nuclear dispute, it perhaps indicates a willingness to talk. With the specter of impasse at the Security Council looming over the Bush administration’s strategy of adopting a coercive path against Iran, it has never been clearer that diplomacy is the only option. The Bush Administration has unwisely chosen to ignore the letter, but the ball is still in the U.S. court.