The Magazine

Reading Ahmadinejad in Washington

The Iranian president's letter needs to be taken seriously.

May 29, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 35 • By HILLEL FRADKIN
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WILL THE UNITED STATES declare war on the Islamic Republic of Iran? For months, this question has been the theme of diplomatic and public discourse--with horror usually expressed at the idea. But it now seems that we have this backwards. For the import of the letter that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, sent to President Bush in the first week of May is that Ahmadinejad and Iran have declared war on the United States. Many reasons are given, but the most fundamental is that the United States is a liberal democracy, the most powerful in the world and the leader of all the others. Liberal democracy, the letter says, is an affront to God, and as such its days are numbered. It would be best if President Bush and others realized this and abandoned it. But at all events, Iran will help where possible to hasten its end. (The full text of the letter, translated into English from the original Persian, can be found at www.cfr.org/content/publications/attachments/Ahmadinejad%20letter.pdf.)

Neither the Bush administration nor its many critics appear to appreciate the significance, ideological and practical, of the letter. Nor do they appear to appreciate the remarkable boldness of Ahmadinejad personally. For the formal characteristics of the letter as well as its substance have ancient and modern analogs--letters of Muhammad to the Byzantine, Persian, and Ethiopian emperors of his day warning them to accept Islam and his rule or suffer the consequences, and a letter from Khomeini to Mikhail Gorbachev along similar lines. Thus, Ahmadinejad presents himself as the true heir of Muhammad and Khomeini and may even be suggesting that he is a founder himself. At the least, he presents himself as the spokesman and leader of Islam and the Muslim world in its entirety, transcending the Shiite/Sunni divide. Both this boldness and this claim are consistent with the whole series of pronouncements and actions Ahmadinejad has taken in the brief period since he was elected last summer. But the letter, in its form and substance, raises this to a new and much higher level of clarity and power as well as menace.

The Bush administration and its critics have ignored all this. They have chosen to view the letter within a narrower prism--the question of negotiations or rather non-negotiations over Iran's enrichment of uranium. For the administration, the letter contained "nothing new" in this regard. For Bush's critics, it was an "opening," one that could best be exploited if the United States were to drop its resistance to direct participation in negotiations with Tehran.

This reaction is not entirely surprising. Ahmadinejad's letter does have a bearing on the struggle over Iran's pursuit of enriched uranium. Its long catalog of alleged U.S. crimes against Muslim interests and states specifically, and against Africa, Latin America, and the poorer parts of the world more generally, mimics the standard litany of anti-American complaints. It is intended to further undermine support for the United States and weaken its position in the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program. In this it may have some success. But for these purposes, it need not have presented its critique in a religious and ideological mode, up to and including the charge that Bush is a hypocrite in his claim to be "a follower of Jesus Christ." That is, Ahmadinejad could have done without the theological "meanderings" about which both the administration and its critics complained. Indeed, for these purposes it would have been better if he had. Bush's critics--including most recently Russia's Vladimir Putin--like to charge him with hypocrisy, but they are by and large not concerned with Christian standards. And above all, the attack on liberal democracy could not be assumed to appeal to secular critics.

Yet Ahmadinejad did decide to approach the world, Muslim and non-Muslim, theologically--to insist that nuclear proliferation is not only an issue of policy but also of theology, indeed of the most fundamental and important issues of theology. He defends the right not only of Iran to nuclear technology but also of all Muslim countries as Muslim. Indeed they have not only a right but a duty to pursue such technology. The issue must be understood in the light of the most fundamental and important conflict in the world today as Ahmadinejad sees it--a fundamental conflict between Islam and its rivals, most immediately liberal democracy as embodied in the United States, but also Christianity.