Obama Could Send Message to Iran With...a Message to Iran

May 19, 2009

U.S. News & World ReportCopyright 2009 U.S. News & World Report, L.P. Reprinted with permission.

In one letter, Obama could spell out common interests, mutual concerns, and prospects for peace

This February marked the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. In what may yet prove to be an historical milestone of another kind, on February 10, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reached out to President Barack Obama to signal Tehran's readiness for "talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere." Three years earlier, in March 2006, President Ahmadinejad wrote a far-ranging, 18-page letter to President George W. Bush focused on religious values, history, and international relations. During Mr. Ahmadinejad's visit to the U.N. later that year, he expressed his deep disappointment that his letter had gone unanswered.

I believed then, as I do now, that this was a missed opportunity. President Bush was given a unique opening to address the Iranian people directly and pave the way for his successor to undertake a constructive dialogue. That did not happen. Following his election, President Barack Obama received a congratulatory letter from President Ahmadinejad. In turn, President Obama sent a cordial, congratulatory message to the Iranian nation and its current leaders on the occasion of the Iranian New Year (March 21). Now, President Obama should take the next step. He should send a comprehensive letter that will answer all the major issues raised in President Ahmadinejad's previous letters and statements as well as those of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pertaining to U.S.-Iranian relations in general and those of the past 30 years in particular. To that end, I submit the following draft letter to the Obama administration.

—Vartan Gregorian

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
President of the Islamic Republic of Iran,

Upon assuming the presidency of the United States, I have reviewed your past public utterances and written communications concerning the U.S.-Iranian relations and outstanding issues facing our two countries.

Let me, therefore, begin by stating that Americans are deeply mindful and respectful of the renowned achievements and rich cultural legacy of Iranian civilization, which reflect an unparalleled degree of historical continuity. We are especially cognizant of the role that religion has played in your country's development. Some 2,500 years ago, Iranians gave the world Zoroastrianism, which among its core tenets affirmed man's absolute free will to choose between evil and a Divine Creator, and our common destiny to face a final Day of Judgment. Although manifested in many different forms, these ancient tenets have been shared by the world's great religions. They underscore the basic truth that human beings not only can decide for themselves what is right and wrong, but also are accountable for their actions.

In the sixth century B.C., Iranians gave us the Achaemenid Empire, and its enlightened leaders, Cyrus and Darius. It was Cyrus the Great who decreed that "all should be free to worship their gods without impediments or persecution"—a proclamation unique, not only for its time, but for centuries to come. Ending the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, Cyrus allowed their return to Palestine, and supported their right to live by biblical law. His respect for cultural diversity and rights for the empire's "many people of many tongues" was emulated by his successors, making the Achaemenid Empire one of the most tolerant and pluralistic in history. This far-flung empire also served as a bridge between East and West, as Iranian art and architecture adorned the great cities of the empire from Babylon to Persepolis. The Achaemenids' unique administrative system became a model for other empires, while its emphasis on the teaching of science and philosophy, further advanced by its successor, the Sassanid Empire, greatly influenced the eventual development of nascent universities throughout the region and beyond.

Iran has endured many trials and tribulations over the ensuing centuries. Although conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century and converted to Islam, Iranians, drawing on their own early beliefs, helped to develop and then adhered to Shi'a Islam. It was during this period that Iran became the seat of Islamic learning and gave to the world its science, philosophy, theology, arts, and architecture. At the dawn of the 16th century, the Safavids, with the glorious city of Isfahan as their capital, unified Iran and adopted Shi'a Islam as their empire's official religion. In the process, Iran was not only able to retain its cultural distinctiveness but also to infuse Islam with its great humanistic traditions. Reviving Iran's ancient devotion to religious tolerance, the Safavid king, Shah Abbas, treated Iran's Christians and Jews benevolently, and welcomed those fleeing persecution from other lands. It was this reputation that prompted Europe's Christian powers to seek his collaboration.

In that connection, we are mindful of the fact that, throughout history, Iran's greatest strength has not derived from its arms or material wealth alone but from its rich and resilient culture. For centuries, Iran conquered and in turn was conquered by many invading armies, including Greeks, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols. Yet, the invaders were ultimately won over by Iranian culture, which, in effect, made them its converts and brought about the continual rejuvenation of the Iranian state. The peaceful spread of Islam into Central Asia, South Asia, and beyond owed much to this culture and its irenic interpretations of Islam. In the pursuit of knowledge, Iranians actively sought contact with scientists and philosophers from different regions. Even during periods of foreign domination, Iran's artistic and scientific spirit flourished and its poets, mystics, and philosophers produced one of the greatest bodies of literature in the Muslim world and created a remarkable cultural and scientific heritage that still resonates today.

Having noted Iran's great cultural and historical legacy, and its ability to both enrich and be enriched through its interaction with other civilizations, let me now turn to the issue of United States-Iran relations. It is our contention that, with a few notable exceptions, especially during the last three decades, Iranians and Americans have, on the whole, enjoyed remarkably positive relations. This strong record of mutual amity and respect provides reason for optimism that both our countries will eventually be able to put aside our differences and re-establish the goodwill that once served us both so well.

To begin with, let me note that during the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, American missionaries worked throughout Iran. Although they were not able to convert Muslims to Christianity, and had only limited success in converting some Armenian and Assyrian Christians to Protestantism, they established the first modern hospitals and the first modern educational institutions in Iran. In 1856, the United States granted Iran most favored nation trade status and welcomed Iranian students to its universities. When Iranians launched their constitutional revolution in 1906, Americans welcomed the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. The young American schoolteacher Howard Baskerville, who joined the constitutionalists and was martyred in Tabriz in 1909, is still regarded as one of the heroes of your revolution. It was also an American, W. Morgan Schuster, who came to the aid of Iran and organized its customs to serve as a revenue source designed not to be controlled by either Great Britain or Russia, and wrote a classic anticolonial book, The Strangling of Persia.

When, despite its neutrality during World War I, Iran was invaded by Russian and Ottoman troops, the United States defended its territorial integrity. Americans later welcomed an Iranian delegation to Versailles, where President Woodrow Wilson was the lone world leader to support Iran's claim for compensation from Britain and Russia for the effects of their wartime occupation. During World War II, following the Allied occupation of Iran and the exile of Reza Shah Pahlavi, the United States and its allies supported every effort to keep Iran united and whole and retained the institution of the monarchy as a symbol of the unity and continuity of Iranian statehood. During that period, Iran played a crucial role as a conduit for American assistance to the Soviet and Allied war effort. At the end of the war it was, once again, the United States that resolutely protected the territorial integrity of Iran by opposing Soviet efforts to turn Azerbaijan and Kurdistan into autonomous republics. Under the leadership of President Harry Truman, the United States compelled the Soviets to leave the northern part the country without allowing a Soviet monopoly over its energy resources. If not for America's efforts, Iran might have been broken up.

After the outbreak of the Cold War, the United States recognized the vital importance of Iran within the Gulf region. We helped build Iran's armed forces by providing training as well as over a billion dollars of modern armaments, and supported Iran's leadership of the Baghdad Pact and Central Treaty Organization. Between 1953 and 1978, we provided Iran with the most advanced weapons systems on a par with those available to our NATO allies. We were eager to help Iran become a modern economic and political force and thus provided Iran with a broad range of economic assistance, as well, including support for the diversification of its energy resources. During this period, it is a fact that the United States supported Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who succeeded his father as Iran's ruler. As a pro-Western, secular nationalist, America viewed the Shah as an important bulwark against Communism. The United States promoted the Shah's ambitions to make Iran a regional superpower and also considered it, as we do today, a key to regional stability. America welcomed Iran's efforts to promote economic ties among Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other powers in an effort to avert conflict, which would only impede Iran's and the region's prospects.

American acceptance of Iran's decision to nationalize its oil industry in 1951, coupled with its successful resistance to Great Britain's plans to seize Iranian oil fields by force, was followed by U.S. assistance to modernize these facilities. Our assistance enabled Iran to raise its oil production and prices, which, in turn, gave the country the necessary revenues to modernize its economy, armed forces, and physical and social infrastructure.

During the height of the Cold War, the United States and its allies, as well as the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact partners, made a number of miscalculations and errors. Both camps were so obsessed with one another's seemingly monolithic doctrines and zero-sum policies that they misjudged the nature of such potent historic and cultural forces as religion and nationalism. After the departure of Soviet troops from Iran, the United States remained deeply concerned about possible Communist infiltration of the Iranian government, especially during the premiership of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh. Some of Dr. Mossadegh's own lieutenants were similarly alarmed by this threat. Although Dr. Mossadegh was hosted at the White House by President Truman, who compared him to American patriots Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, and was hailed by Time magazine as its "Man of the Year" in 1951, by the time a new American presidential administration took office in 1952, Cold War imperatives and mistrust were ascendant.

In 1953, the United States, assisted by local elements opposed to the Mossadegh government, including religious leaders such as Ayatollah Abolqasem Kashani, military officers, monarchists, and others, precipitated its demise. We did not recognize that a nationalist, secular, and democratic Iran would have been a great counterforce against Communism. Neither did we appreciate the sagacity of the Iranian national leadership and the power of nationalism. We were wrong. On the other hand, we were right in assisting with the modernization of the Iranian armed forces, which became one of the major factors that helped Iran defend itself against well-armed Iraqi aggression in 1979. This aggression resulted in a tragic, 10-year war costing hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides. During this protracted warfare, America had a choice: to side with Iraq, which had no diplomatic relations with the U.S., or with Iran, though we, in turn, had no diplomatic relations with Iran because of the hostage crisis. It must be noted that, had the U.S. sided with Iran, such action would have alienated us from the majority of Arab countries. Another choice was neutrality, which was our professed policy, though we did not try to block some $3 billion in arms sales from Israel to Iran. Not to mention the notorious Iran-contra affair, which resulted in substantial transfer of arms and other materiel to Iran.

Contrary to Iran's official propaganda, the United States did not break diplomatic relations in response to the Iranian Revolution. On the contrary, we accepted this development and endeavored to establish a working relationship with your new leadership. We broke our diplomatic ties only in 1979 when, in violation of international law, Iranians occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, seized 56 American diplomats and held them hostage for 444 days. Prior to their release, we engaged in a failed attempt to rescue them. (Given the history of this painful period, it is continually surprising that, when abroad, Iranian officials never mention the hostage crisis that triggered the breakup of our diplomatic relations.)

No country, certainly no country in possession of the vast power of the United States, would have failed to act under such circumstances. But we restrained our response, because the powerful have the option not to exercise their power. With hopes that common sense would eventually prevail, the United States reluctantly tolerated the situation, not out of weakness but out of a sense of responsibility. We distinguished between the Iranian government and its people, and between our short- and long-term interests.

Let me now turn to a more recent, vexing problem that has proven to be a major obstacle to the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations and the resumption of our historically positive interaction. Notwithstanding your recent reaffirmation of Iran's adherence to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which your country ratified in 1970, and your pledge that "all [Iranian] nuclear activities are transparent, peaceful, and under the watchful eye of International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]," we continue to have grave concerns—not about Iran's official pledges but rather about its actions and intentions.

Why, you ask, do we challenge what you view as your legally recognized rights under the NPT? To be clear, we do not oppose Iran's enjoyment of "the peaceful benefits of nuclear energy." However, as you well know, this is a qualified right, mandating that all signatories to the NPT meet certain requirements. In our opinion—and those of other countries and the IAEA, itself—you have not fully met either the spirit or letter of such requirements. Let me remind Iranians that the United States was the driving force behind the development of Iran's nuclear research capacity through the Atoms for Peace program and reached agreement with Iran as long ago as 1957 for cooperation on civil uses of atomic power. A decade later, it was the United States that supplied technical assistance and fuel for a nuclear reactor. America supported the establishment of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran in 1974 and, in the following year, concluded a pact calling for the construction of eight nuclear reactors in Iran while encouraging the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to provide training for some 100 Iranian nuclear engineers.

Indeed, one of the most cogent rationales for Iran's peaceful nuclear energy program was contained in a 1975 National Security Decision Memorandum signed by then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, which stated, "Introduction of nuclear power will both provide for the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals." In 1978, just a year before the Iranian revolution, the United States signed yet another agreement with Iran to facilitate further cooperation in the field of nuclear energy. It was, in fact, Iran's revolutionary government that decided in 1979 to suspend the country's nuclear program. Although Iran's then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called nuclear power "the work of the devil," Iran later chose to revive its nuclear program with external assistance from both state and non-state actors.

Despite the fatwa issued against Iran's "stockpiling, production, or use of nuclear weapons" by you, Ayatollah Khamenei, in your capacity as the spiritual leader of Iran, doubts remain about your country's ultimate objectives. In addition to the disturbing revelations about Iran's 18-year-long, mostly clandestine nuclear program in violation of IAEA safeguards, you have been unwilling to respond satisfactorily to certain questions about your past nuclear activities and allow the IAEA the access it needs to verify new undertakings. Iran has also made determined efforts to produce fissile material despite IAEA and UN Security Council demands to desist. Your own assertion that Islam, by its very nature, is incompatible with nuclear weapons is, unfortunately, not reassuring in view of the apparent alacrity with which Pakistan, an Islamic state, developed its own nuclear weapons. Perhaps you are implying that the Shi'a Islam that guides Iran compels the country to hew more closely to the spirit of Islam, and under no circumstances would Iran consider following Pakistan's example. But, as you know, the international community, as expressed through various U.N. Security Council resolutions, is not prepared to take such a calculated risk. The issue, then, is not only Iran's rights under the NPT; it also is one of trust—whether certain elements in the Iranian government can be relied upon to resist the temptation to develop a nuclear weapons program. The goal of America and its allies is to dissuade you from embarking on such a hazardous course. As Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, said at the United Nations in 2007, "The world does not need to prove to Iran that Iran is building an atomic bomb. Iran must persuade the world that it does not want the bomb." In that regard, a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions since 2006 has forbidden Iran from enriching uranium, with the European Union, Russia, and China supporting U.S. calls for Tehran to halt the process. But Iran has sped up its program during this time.

Therefore, the crux of the challenge is how to balance Iran's exercise of its NPT rights with the need to ensure that Iran's nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes. Let me reiterate that we welcome consideration of a wide range of creative options for addressing Iranian concerns and those of the international community, including proposals for guaranteed supplies of nuclear fuel from specific countries such as Russia or from the IAEA. The United States has expressed its willingness to end its decades-long policy not to have direct talks with Iran and is prepared to discuss all the issues that separate us, including Iran's current uranium enrichment program and Iran's supplying of arms, training, and funds to groups inimical to stability in the region. In the spirit of mutual respect, we also are ready to discuss your legitimate aspirations as a regional power and to cease all talk of "regime change" in Iran as well as to provide your country with the security assurances it seeks to protect its sovereignty and independence. All of this is possible only if we can find an internationally acceptable resolution to the problems posed by Iran's engagement in sensitive, dual-use nuclear activities that, absent greater transparency and clarification, appear motivated by an interest in developing a weapons capability.

The primary obstacle to direct, bilateral dialogue—a goal that you have affirmed in interviews with Western media—is Iran's determination to continue with uranium enrichment in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. We fear that if Iran's nuclear energy program is transformed into a nuclear weapons program, it will precipitate a dangerous nuclear arms race in the region.

Let me point out that the development of a nuclear weapon is not necessary for the world to acknowledge the ability and sophistication of Iranian scientists; their knowledge has already brought Iran into the select group of some 40 states with nuclear capacity. Even if Iran has the human and material resources to develop a nuclear weapon, it must have the forbearance and wisdom to refrain from doing so. In exchange for Iran's verifiable compliance with international norms and legal obligations, it will be in a position to enjoy mutually beneficial relations with the United States, as well as with the European Union and other regional and world powers, and thus may one day be eligible to join the World Trade Organization. Such compliance will also provide Iran with opportunities for developing its vast energy sector to serve Iran's strategic interests while also helping meet global energy needs.

It is important to underscore that the United States is not against Iran or the Iranian people. If that were the case, America would not have helped defeat two of your country's major, long-term adversaries, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Their demise has helped Iran reassert its regional power and influence; yet America did not exact any concessions from Iran as the price for its actions. Regrettably, both the United States and Iran, suspicious of one another's aims, have missed several opportunities in recent years to normalize diplomatic relations. Following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, we were greatly impressed that you, Ayatollah Khamenei, and then-President Muhammad Khatami, were among the first world figures to condemn the dastardly assault on America and the killing of innocent civilians. As President Khatami said, "the horrific attacks ... were perpetrated by [a] cult of fanatics who had self-mutilated their ears and tongues, and could only communicate with perceived opponents through carnage and destruction." Indeed, President Khatami described 9/11 as "one of the greatest calamities" of our time. Americans were also deeply moved by the spontaneous candlelight vigil held in Tehran to honor the victims of these attacks. Iran's assistance was welcomed during the struggle to dislodge the Taliban in Afghanistan, as was the development assistance Iran provided to the Afghan government and people. Although this empathetic and collaborative spirit was not capitalized upon to establish a more lasting, positive relationship, such missteps do not have to determine our future path.

The United States and Iran have many common interests in the region. In Iraq, we support the country's unity and territorial integrity, the success of its duly elected government and the avoidance of sectarian strife that might incite a larger regional Shi'a-Sunni conflict. A strong, vibrant Iraq will also provide Iran with a reliable trading partner and assist in the broader economic development of the region, to the benefit of all concerned. Similarly, both countries support the unity, stability, and development of Afghanistan, the repatriation of Afghan refugees now on Iranian soil, the defeat of a resurgent and militant Taliban, and the eradication of the country's opium crop, which has contributed to Iran's growing problems with heroin addiction and the spread of HIV/AIDS.

In our view, the potential for establishing a mutually beneficial, cooperative relationship between Iran and the United States has been diminished by persistent official Iranian hostility. Dismayingly, ever since the Iranians seized the U.S. Embassy in 1979, there have been periodic, well-orchestrated, officially inspired demonstrations throughout Iran against the United States, at which the dominant chant for some 30 years has been "Death to America" and American flags have been burned with abandon. Iranian leaders also never seem to tire of calling America the very incarnation of the "Great Satan," without specifying whether they are impugning America's policies, its government, its people, or all of the above. When Americans take offense at these ritualistic, "spontaneous" denunciations, which do more to offend Americans than any protest against their government's policies, they are told by Iranians not to take such anti-American utterances seriously. But when the United States, after three decades of such provocations, describes Iran as part of an "Axis of Evil" for its support of anti-U.S., anti-Western, anti-Arab allies of the United States and Europe, and anti-Israeli activities—including those of militarist and terrorist groups—Iranian officials are offended. Unlike their own utterances, which they claim are only rhetorical, they paradoxically assert that statements made by Americans must be taken at face value. Despite the deeply offensive, regular burning of our flag, which we believe is beneath Iran's dignity and historical legacy, we have not responded in kind.

Other pronouncements by Iranian leaders and by you, personally, President Ahmadinejad, are equally troubling. Since Iran was one of the original signatories of the U.N. Charter, which affirmed the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states—a right that you reaffirmed in your address to the United Nations on Sept. 19, 2006—your call for the elimination of the state of Israel, questioning of its legal standing, and mockery of the Holocaust are affronts to international law, the U.N. Charter, logic, and decency. After all, Iran was one of the first countries to sign the Genocide Convention and—directly to that point—in 1942, was refuge for an estimated 115,000 Jewish refugees, mostly Polish, fleeing Nazi persecution. In the poignant words of one Polish Jewish émigré, Helena Woloch: "Exhausted by hard labor, disease and starvation ... we disembarked at the port of Pahlevi [where] ... we knelt down together in our thousands along the sandy shoreline to kiss the soil of Persia ... We were free at last and had reached our long-for promised land." Iran has, in fact, one of the world's oldest Jewish communities. There is a mausoleum for the biblical figures Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, and for David in Susa. One can disagree with Israeli policies and defend Palestinian rights without belittling the historical tragedy that befell the Jewish people.

In that connection, and in light of the current impasse in the region, the United States and European Union, together with leading Arab states, support a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Ultimately, it is up to the Palestinians to negotiate an agreement that they believe is just and will allow them to realize their long-sought aspiration for statehood. Until then, the United States, European Union, the Arab League, Turkey, and other powers, including Iran, have an obligation to support and not obstruct constructive efforts to realize this goal. Once a two-state solution is attained, they also must help ensure that it is long-lasting and provides the region with much needed peace and an opportunity to fulfill its great economic and social potential.

The time has come to acknowledge that mature countries living in an increasingly interdependent world can no longer afford to communicate through slogans, recriminations, and tendentious rhetoric. Investing the precious financial and human resources of Iran in posturing and in demonizing the United States and its allies is conducive neither to mutual understanding nor peace. Statesmen should eschew these affectations in favor of problem solving. The resolution of the endemic problems that divide the United States and Iran requires an honest, realistic, and mutually respectful approach that lowers the temperature and volume of public oratory, and opens channels of quiet and discreet dialogue and diplomacy.

Despite Iran's roots in antiquity, it is, demographically, a young country, with more than two thirds of its population under the age of 30. Improved, normal relations with the United States and its allies will help Iran achieve its tremendous potential and fulfill the specific responsibilities spelled out in your 1979 Constitution, which states that its ultimate objectives are:

"... achieving the economic independence of the society, uprooting poverty and deprivation, and fulfilling human needs in the process of development while preserving human liberty, ... [including] ensuring conditions and opportunities of employment for everyone, with a view to attaining full employment, ... and [allowing for] all citizens of the country, both men and women, to equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social and cultural rights."

These are rights that resonate deeply with Americans. The United States takes pride in the fact that, prior to, and even after the severance of diplomatic relations with Iran, American universities have provided opportunities for higher education and training for over 100,000 Iranian students, including doctors, engineers, architects, scientists, and scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Americans also are gratified that there are an estimated 1 million Iranian-Americans living in the United States and fully integrated into American society. Having taken full advantage of the opportunities that a free society offers to all our citizens, they have made significant contributions in many areas and have achieved impressive academic, professional, and financial success while retaining their cultural heritage.

The United States welcomes a new chapter in the history of our two countries that builds on the strong record of cooperation and goodwill that has long marked Iranian-America relations, and offers even greater opportunities for both our peoples to prosper and live in peace. In the wise and timeless words of guidance from Imam Ali, the Fourth Caliph of Islam and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, to the newly appointed governor of Egypt, "... Peace will bring rest and comfort to your armies, will relieve you of anxieties and worries, and will bring prosperity and affluence to your people."

I close this letter with another quote from Imam Ali, who is revered in Iran. His words speak even more profoundly to the specific challenges and opportunities facing a great state, such as Iran, which seeks to follow the path of righteousness laid out by its founding spiritual leader, and recognizes the inherent fallibility, as well as redemptive potential, that marks the human condition:

"...There are two kinds of people: those who have the same religion as you [and] are brothers to you, and those who have religions other than yours, [who] are human beings like you. Men of either category suffer from the same weaknesses and disabilities that human beings are inclined to; they commit sins, indulge in vices either intentionally or foolishly and unintentionally without realizing the enormity of their deeds. Let your mercy and compassion come to their rescue and help in the same way and to the same extent that you expect Allah to show mercy and forgiveness to you."


Barack Obama
President of the United States of America

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