Letter from the United States to Iran

Feb 2, 2009

Editor's note: This is a slight update of an article that was first published on May 5, 2008. The names are changed--it was originally addressed to the future president of Iran from the future president of the U.S.--but the content remains the same. How will it compare to the letter that the Obama administration is currently preparing?

The White House Washington, DC February 1, 2009

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei Islamic Republic of Iran

Dear Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, I have given a great deal of thought to the current and future state of relations between our two countries, and would now like to share with you some reflections in the hope that this might contribute to a more positive dialogue between us.

First, as to shared interests: these we have, limited but important. We were grateful for Iran's cooperation in 2001 at the time of the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban, in support of the Northern Alliance, and in establishing the Karzai government.

Today, you, of all nations, are concerned with and greatly affected by the opium trade out of Afghanistan, where poppy production is now reported at near record numbers. The narcotics flow across your borders, and while you have employed, and lost, large numbers of security and military forces in the struggle against the traffickers, there are an estimated one million plus addicts in Iran.

We share, too, a stake in a peaceful and stable outcome in Iraq, home to Shi'a Islam's most holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, whose spiritual exiles have been your guests.

Second, the causes that divide us: of these we have many, and primary among them is the nuclear issue. You claim that Iran, which uses more than half its oil production for domestic use, is pursuing nuclear energy as merely one option—along with wind, solar, and geothermal—in the face of demands that will increase exponentially as your population grows by 50 percent by mid-century.

We Americans understand very well the challenges of energy development and consumption, but we remain skeptical and concerned about elements of your nuclear program that are, at best, ambiguous—such as the traces of highly enriched uranium in some facilities and equipment, and your suspected development of the P2 centrifuge system. In seeking to resolve this source of impasse in our relations, we welcomed the 2006 statement of the Non-Aligned Movement of the United Nations, whose 118 countries for the most part share good relations with both of us. The statement, while supporting your right to develop peaceful nuclear technology, called for serious negotiations on your overall nuclear intentions.

The other major source of strain between us is Iran's support for the various terrorist organizations in the Middle East, and for its vitriolic attacks on Israel. Your own pronouncements on Holocaust denial and on the eradication of Israel are, if truly meant, deplorable. They are also perplexing, given the rich and close ties between Iran and the world's Jewry, even in modern times. As you know, Jews have lived in Persia and Iran for 2700 years, constituting, along with Yemen, the world's oldest Jewish community outside the Holy Land. There is a mausoleum for Esther and Mordecai in Hamadan, and for Daniel in Susa. There are still some 25,000 Iranian Jews and—uniquely in a Muslim state—a Jewish representative to the Majlis [the Iranian Parliament].

President Ahmadinejad has spoken dismissively of the Holocaust, yet Iran was the place of refuge for some 115,000 Jewish refugees from Poland in 1942, who were allowed to enter Iran after enduring terrible hardships traveling across Russia. For the 18,000 children among these, orphanages were set up in Pahlavi, Tehran and Avaz, and, above all, Isfahan became celebrated in Polish émigré circles as the City of Polish Children.

When Israel was created in 1948, Iran was one of the first countries to recognize her. In the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, Israel was Iran's chief weapons supplier [an estimated $3 billion]. And, when Menachem Begin ordered the destruction of the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad in June 1981, was there not rejoicing in the streets of Tehran?

In conclusion, let me say that we tend to dwell on past grievances, and must move beyond these. Among them, President Ahmadinejad has often mentioned the U.S.-supported coup d'etat of 1953; but America has apologized for this. And what of our sense of injury in 1979? Let me ask: how would the Iranian nation have reacted if the staff of one of your embassies had been arrested en masse on vague spying charges and held for months without trial?

If we must look to the past, let us also look to what is good in the past. Think of the time when the American people were outraged by the Great Game and the colonial bullying that accompanied it—a time when the great early 20th century writer W. Morgan Shuster wrote The Strangling of Persia. Think too of the hospitals and schools built by Americans, including the American College in Tehran [Alborz]; and what of the work of the Peace Corps, whose impact was felt beyond Iran's cities, in your rural villages?

I have a simple, yet fundamentally important, wish: that Iranians and Americans may be able to visit and travel freely within each others' countries, that we may conduct academic and professional exchange programs. Such exchange brings a mutual understanding based on personal experience and observation, rather than blinkered ideology. This may seem far-fetched, and far-off. But it is barely 20 years ago that we might have expressed the same elusive hope for relations with the Soviet Union. The obstacles here, I hope you agree, seem altogether less daunting.

Sincerely yours, President Barack Obama

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