Thursday, May 11, 2006

About that letter: Understanding Iran's Nuke Kook

Amir Taheri, The New York Post:
'THE whole world is mov ing towards God, "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has written to his American counterpart, George W. Bush. "Would Your Excellency not wish to join?"

In Tehran, the Persian text of the letter has become a favorite topic at dinner table conversations and is often the source of much mirth because of its flowery style, its numerous spelling and grammatical errors and, above all, the insight it offers into the mind of a man who clearly sees himself as an agent of the Hidden Imam in hastening the end of the "Infidel" domination of the world.

Initially, the letter was supposed to be a private message from the Islamic Republic to the Bush administration. But once Washington had dismissed it as irrelevant to the issues on hand, its text was leaked to reporters in Tehran.

Ahmadinejad's epistolary exercise seem merely another of his quirks. But it must be seen as yet another sign that the new leadership in Tehran is determined to provoke a direct confrontation with the United States in the hope that, plagued by internal problems, the Americans will either back away or be humiliated.

Ahmadinejad's move fits into a 14-century-long Muslim tradition, initiated by the Prophet Muhammad himself, of writing letters to "the rulers of the world."

In 625 A.D., having consolidated his position in Medina and established a secure power base for his rule, the prophet decided it was time to call on "the infidel" to abandon their faith and submit to Islam. He dictated letters to Khosrow Parviz, the Persian king of kings (a Zoroastrian), and to Emperor Heraclius of Byzantium and the Ethiopian monarch Negus (both Christian).

To each, the prophet's offer was simple: Convert to Islam and secure a place in paradise - or cling to your beliefs and face the sword of Islam.

The Persian monarch ordered his security services to find the "insolent letter writer" and bring him to the court in Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire at the time. According to Islamic folklore, Muhammad escaped capture only because, soon after, Khosrow Parviz was murdered by his son and designated heir. And within a decade the Persian Empire had disintegrated, with most of its territory falling to the armies of Islam.

The Byzantine emperor and the Ethiopian monarch, however, replied to Muhammad in brief but polite terms. According to Islamic folklore, this is why Byzantium managed to prolong its life by several more centuries, while Ethiopia escaped Muslim conquest altogether.

The tradition of writing letters calling on non-Muslims to convert expanded under Ali Ibn Abi-Talib, the prophet's cousin and son-in-law and the fourth Caliph. Muhammad Ibn Hassan, the last of the 12 imams of Shi'ism, known as the "Hidden Imam" (whose return Ahmadinejad regards as imminent), also used letter writing as a means of communicating with the outside world, though he addressed most of his letters to Muslims. in general and his most ardent partisans in particular. But, as tradition demanded, he was not prepared to settle for anything less than a full and unconditional conversion of the entire humanity to his version of the faith.

Fast forward to 1987: We see the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini demonstrating his own epistolary talents by writing a letter, in the style of the Prophet, in response to a diplomatic feeler from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev wanted the Islamic Republic to help Russia prevent the victory of the U.S.-backed mujahedin in Afghanistan. In exchange, Gorbachev would support the Islamic Republic in the face of mounting U.S. pressure.

As a good Muslim leader, however, Khomeini wanted everything. Thus he composed a letter inviting Gorbachev to convert to Islam before he could receive help in Afghanistan or anywhere else. (The Soviet leader politely declined.)

It would be wrong to dismiss Ahmadinejad's letter to Bush as just another of the Islamic leader's many weird habits. It would be more prudent, and better politics, to take Ahmadinejad seriously and try and understand him in his own terms.

His letter contains a crucial message: The present regime in Iran is the enemy of the current international system and is determined to undermine and, if possible, destroy it. READ MORE

It would be wrong to dismiss that message as the product of a 50-year-old teenager's folie de grandeur. Ahmadinejad believes that the "Hidden Imam" is about to return and that it is the duty of the Islamic Republic to provoke a "clash of civilizations" to hasten that return.

As he asserts in his letter, Ahmadinejad also believes that the liberal-democratic model of market-based capitalist societies has failed and is rejected even in its traditional homeland. He has been impressed by the recent riots in France, where the extreme left provided the leadership but the Muslim sub-proletariat much of the muscle in the streets.

Rather than ignoring Ahmadinejad's letter, President Bush should reply to him by inviting him to abandon Khomeinism and convert to liberal democracy. For, when all is said and done, the fight over Iran today is not about real or imagined nuclear weapons; it is about the kind of Iran with which the Middle East, indeed the whole world, can feel comfortable.

Ahmadinejad's letter shows that a majority of Iranians, let alone the world as a whole, cannot feel comfortable with the kind of Iran he represents.

Iranian author and journalist Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.