Don't Talk to the Mullahs
Christopher Hitchens, Slate: Bush should respond to Ahmadinejad's letter, but he should speak directly to the Iranian people.
There is an excellent case to be made for initiating an imaginative diplomatic overture to Iran, or rather to the Iranians, and I did my best to lay it out. But this case is not strengthened by the demented letter recently made public by the man posing as Iran's president.
I say "posing," because, however many times our media babble about his "landslide" victory in Iran's "elections," everybody knows that he was put in by the reigning mullahs at the very last moment, after all independent and reformist candidates had been eliminated from the process, and that the counting of the votes was an insult to the meanest intelligence. I repeat the word "posing," because, even as he was putting his signature to the infantile diatribe he dispatched to President Bush, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was being further exposed to his own people and the world as the wretched puppet that he is. Seeking to advance his own pseudo-populist appeal, he had announced that women would henceforth be allowed to attend soccer matches and be in the same stadium as men. (The concession itself shows how depressing is the status quo in Iran.) But no sooner had it been made than the free gift was countermanded by Ayatollah Khamenei, the leader of the theocratic "Guardian Council" that exerts all real power in Tehran. Ahmadinejad, having thus been exposed as the mere monkey on top of the organ, was sent by the organ-grinders on a trip to impress students in Indonesia with his stale theological tropes. READ MORE
This does not necessarily mean that his letter is not a guide to the mentality of the masters who bade him write it. It opens with a few boilerplate paragraphs about American evil-doings (in which the admission that Saddam Hussein's overthrow was welcomed by "the people of the region" is easy to miss). It then turns to a pedantic discussion of the wrongness of the whole existence of the state of Israel, which might have been designed to make professor Juan Cole (who thinks that Khomeinist anti-Zionism is a derivation from Persian poetry) look like a fool and an ignoramus. Ahmadinejad then rams home this point, as it were, by a couple of callous remarks about the Holocaust. And, as if for good measure, he goes on to insinuate that the attack on the World Trade Center was unlikely to have been planned "without coordination with intelligence and security services." If he has evidence about this, he would have done well to present it, but it seems from the context that he believes the "coordination" to have been American.
The man is as mad as a hatter, therefore, and makes up for his impotence and insanity with many ingratiating assurances about Jesus and his honored place in the Quran and many lachrymose remarks about violations of human rights. He declares that his regime's nuclear program is a matter of "scientific R&D," and he ends with a salutation in Arabic which is given without translation in the news-agency versions that have been made available. The salutation reads, "Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda." This is a customary signoff by devout clerics, in Iran as well as in Arab lands, and can be approximately translated as "peace unto those who follow the true path." It was a favorite of the late Ayatollah Khomeini's. According to some, it was used as a silkily threatening mode of address by the Prophet Mohammed, who employed it when addressing neighboring states that had not yet converted to Islam. In this declension, it could be interpreted to imply war unto those who did not choose to follow the true path.
However that may be, President Bush could have easily responded, with much greater brevity, to say that he hoped to keep the exchange going but that a few points needed to be got out of the way. In the first place, Ahmadinejad must forgo the illusion that he is writing to the leader of a Christian country. As far back as the late 1790s, Congress approved the Treaty of Tripoli, which said in so many words that the United States was in no sense a Christian society and had no quarrel of any kind with the Muslim religion. Its Constitution requires the president to represent all Americans, of all faiths and of none, without any reference to any confession. There could then have been a word of discreet thanks for Ahmadinejad's appreciation of the belated overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who was the provocation for the Iranian weapons program in the first place. On this thorny question, he might have added, he was sorry to see Ahmadinejad being so evasive, but the fact remained that it was the International Atomic Energy Agency, the European Union, and the United Nations that had found Iran in grave breach of all its undertakings in respect of nuclear programs. As politely as possible, Bush might also have mentioned the recent roundup of dissidents in Tehran, most notably the arrest at the airport of Dr. Rahmin Jahanbegloo, whose detention was officially confirmed in the most crude police-state terms as one where "charges would be announced following the interrogations."
Bear in mind that almost all Iranians are now within reach of a satellite dish, a cell phone, or a foreign broadcast—and that we have a talented and resourceful Iranian diaspora in Europe and North America. The president could have added two things. The first is that, since Western technology helped to build the Iranian reactors in the first place, there is no need for Iran to go pirating for centrifuges and other techniques on the black market as it has repeatedly been caught doing. If a peaceful nuclear program is truly what it wants, we alone can help maintain and enhance it. The second is that Iran is standing on a cobweb network of earthquake "faults" that will, with absolute certainty, produce yet another devastating chain of earthquakes in the next few years. (So awful is this predicament that, after the total destruction of the city of Bam in 2003, even the mullahs considered removing the wildly overcrowded and dysfunctional capital city from Tehran to Esfahan.) American aid workers performed beautifully in Bam and were very well-received by the inhabitants. And only the United States could help Iran to design some system of preparation against the seismic horror that impends and that will now be still more apocalyptic as it affects secret reactors and covert uranium-enrichment facilities in deep caverns. Humanitarian duty thus matches international responsibility, and the mullahs have meanwhile squandered, on their pointless and dangerous nuclear program, what they ought to have been investing in social self-defense. I predict that there could be a very serious and attentive Iranian audience for such an offer, which is one that we ought to be making anyway.
This is no longer a matter of "public diplomacy" or "image" or "making nice." A wrecked Iran in one form or another is an immediate and urgent danger, and the pathetic religious demagogue at its merely titular summit is of no more significance than a false prophet screeching in a real wilderness. Almost everything that went wrong in Iraq went wrong because we postponed the real decisions until it was almost too late. President Bush has a chance to redeem this by speaking directly to the Iranian people and the international community and bypassing the wicked men who have run a noble country into a swamp of beggary, violence, crime, corruption, and disaster.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His most recent book is Thomas Jefferson: Author of America. His most recent collection of essays is titled Love, Poverty, and War.