Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Iran’s President Criticizes Bush in Letter to American People - New York Times

Iran’s President Criticizes Bush in Letter to American People - New York Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Nov. 29 — Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told the American people on Wednesday that he was certain they detested President Bush’s policies — his support for Israel, war in Iraq and curtailed civil liberties — and he offered to work with them to reverse those policies.

The call came in the form of a six-page letter in English, published online and addressed to “noble Americans” that discussed “the many wars and calamities caused by the U.S. administration.” It suggested that Americans had been fooled into accepting their government’s policies, especially toward Israel.

“What have the Zionists done for the American people that the U.S. administration considers itself obliged to blindly support these infamous aggressors?” Mr. Ahmadinejad wrote. “Is it not because they have imposed themselves on a substantial portion of the banking, financial, cultural and media sectors?”

This was the latest public step by Iran’s president to promote a dialogue with the United States. He wrote a letter to Mr. Bush in May, calling on him to shift his policies and open a discussion, but it was dismissed by the White House as irrelevant to the central issue dividing them — Iran’s nuclear program. Then Mr. Ahmadinejad challenged Mr. Bush to a public debate, also dismissed by the White House.

On Wednesday, the administration’s reaction remained unchanged.

“This is a transparently hypocritical and cynical letter,” Nicholas R. Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, said in Washington about the latest letter. “It reflects a profound lack of understanding of the United States.”

Still, at least tactically the letter seemed to take a page from Mr. Bush himself, who, speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in September, sought to bypass the Iranian government and address the people directly. The letter also distinguished between the administration and the people.

“Undoubtedly, the American people are not satisfied with this behavior, and they showed their discontent in the recent elections,” Mr. Ahmadinejad wrote. “I hope that in the wake of the midterm elections, the administration of President Bush will have heard and will heed the message of the American people.”

But it was the emphasis on religious themes, specifically Shiite Muslim notions of justice and fighting oppression, that characterized the new letter as it did his letter to President Bush.

“Both our nations are God-fearing, truth-loving and justice-seeking, and both seek dignity, respect and perfection,” the letter said.

The letter seemed directed at three audiences. It sought to reach out to Americans through religious values; to the Arab world, by emphasizing the Palestinian conflict with Israel; and to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s political base at home, which includes the military, hard-line clerics and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader.

The letter also employed an inferential, Iranian style of communication that experts say is likely to leave Americans cold.

“Americans are going to be very puzzled by it,” said William Beeman, a linguistic anthropologist at Brown University who specializes in Persian. “People are simply not used to being talked to this way.” He added, “It is almost a sermon, which is very much in keeping with his religious background. But I should also point out it is also a lecture.”

The letter reminded Americans that “many victims of Katrina continue to suffer, and countless Americans continue to live in poverty and homelessness.”

It also lamented: “Civil liberties are increasingly being curtailed. Even the privacy of the individuals is fast losing its meaning.”

The president made no reference to the level of poverty, political freedom or judicial independence in his own country.

After referring to Abu Ghraib in Iraq and the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, he wrote: “I have no doubt that the American people do not approve of this behavior and indeed deplore it.”

Since his election in June 2005, Mr. Ahmadinejad has pursued an aggressive and outspoken foreign policy, relying on the bully pulpit of his position to make up for the limited powers of Iran’s presidency.

His refusal to end enrichment of uranium and his calls for the destruction of Israel have won him few friends in the West. But they have led to increasing popularity across the Muslim world.

Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a professor of international relations at Tehran University, said the letter was mostly an effort to win the allegiance of Arabs. Iran has been trying to position itself as the pre-eminent power in the Middle East.

“His first objective is to get the sympathy of Arabs,” said Dr. Hermidas-Bavand. “The letter makes Ahmadinejad a subject of international talks, particularly in the Middle East.”

He said the letter gave insight into President Ahmadinejad’s understanding of American society and governance as being driven largely by Christian beliefs and values.

“He has probably been told that American people are religious and that is how Mr. Bush won, by addressing people’s sense of faith,” he said. “Now he wants to capitalize on this sense of religiousness.”

Iran finds its leverage rising, especially as Iraq struggles through bloody sectarian fighting. In Washington, there is increased pressure on the White House to open direct talks with Iran to help stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Ahmadinejad offered a litany of sharp attacks on American policy — calling, for example, for withdrawal from Iraq. And he once again highlighted a central demand of Tehran: that it be treated as an equal by Washington.

But Professor Beeman also said that Americans should recognize that the letter did represent an overture. “Iran is saying, ‘We want to have a dialogue with you,’ ” he said.

Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Amman, Jordan, and Nazila Fathi from Iran.