Please, Talk to Iran

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s letter to President Bush [.pdf] was remarkable, in that it was the first time the leader of Iran has sought to engage the leader of the United States since the Iranian revolution.

Unfortunately, the letter was tainted by the fact that it was sort of loopy, to put it charitably. The Wall Street Journal editorial page compared it – fairly – to the Unabomber’s manifesto. And Mr. Ahmadinejad has a particularly nasty habit of sprinkling Holocaust revisionism and bombastic rhetoric about Israel into every speech he makes.

Unsurprisingly, the Bush administration dismissed the letter, pointing out that it does little to get at the range of substantive issues that divides our two countries. Still, there were some observers who thought that the fact that Ahmadinejad took the step – let alone the fact that he has jetted to Malaysia to declare that Iran “is ready to engage in dialogue with anybody [except Israel]” and that “there are no limits to our dialogue” – represented an opening. But the bizarre tone and lack of substance in the letter sowed grave doubts for some about the prospects for defusing the crisis.

Fortunately, the Iranians appear to have cribbed their strategy from Nikita Khrushchev, sending a second, non-nutty letter to Time magazine for dissemination in the West. In that letter, Hassan Rohani, a representative of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, makes a serious proposal that holds a much better prospect as a starting point for negotiations – and for standing back from the brink of war.

The deal Rohani offers is not very close to the Bush administration’s current demands, but in the course of trying to get to the negotiating table, the opening salvos don’t often resemble the final deals.

We should definitely reply to Mr. Rohani’s letter. Hawks are right to point out that we don’t want to get rope-a-doped here: We don’t want to enter into endless negotiations with the Iranians that go nowhere and just allow them to play for time. That’s why, if we want to find out what their intentions are, we should offer them a serious deal, and see how they respond.

If the Iranians are at all willing to give up their drive toward nuclear weapons in return for normalizing our relationship (including our promising not to attempt “regime change”), it is definitely, absolutely worth making a serious effort to get that deal.