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5/12/2006 Television Panel Discussion
Voice of America - Inter American Forum
The Ahmadinejad Letter and Iran Nuclear Confrontation

5142006voagroup.jpg (13531 bytes)Adriana Amat, Voice of America: Iranian President Ahmadinejad sent an unexpected eighteen page letter to president Bush this week, stating the US had double standards regarding nuclear arms.   But the letter also also stated Adadinejad's willingness to discuss its programs with the United States and other western nations. 

The letter was released shortly before a UN Security Council meeting about how to treat the subject of sanctions against Iran.   The US and Iran have not maintained diplomatic relations since the 1979 Iranian takeover of the US embassy in Teheran, and hostage taking that lasted 444 days.  To speak with us about these themes, we have with us today Grant Smith, from the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy. 

The theme of Iran is under consideration by the UN Security Council...Is Iran buying time with this letter?

Grant Smith, IRmep: It isn't so much buying time, as winning the "war of words" between the US and Iran. The context is as important as the content of the letter.  It is the first presidential level communication in 26 years, as you've said, it is generating a sense, within world public opinion, that the US is intransigent in terms of negotiations. Iranian President Ahmadinejad can travel to Indonesia, and say to the Islamic world, and say "I'm willing to talk, with any country, any person, and particularly the United States."

So I don't think he's buying time as much as framing the issue, and manipulating the context of the international crisis.

Adriana Amat, Voice of America: What do you think of the White House reaction to the letter?

5142006voagfs.jpg (11410 bytes)Grant Smith, IRmep:  I think their response was almost inevitable. We can see in the letter that Ahmadinejad at first tries to show some commonalties, and nexus between religions. However, a little later in the letter there is one existential confrontation after another.

For example when he is talking about the actions of Bush in Iraq, the prisoners in Guantanamo,

Pedro Rodriguez Diario ABC de Espa�a: 9/11 conspiracies....

Grant Smith, IRmep: yes..all topics that aren't really on the negotiating table, as stated by Secretary of State Rice. And once more, Ahmadinejad talks about Israel, and whether it was really correct to locate it in the Middle East after WWII. For the Bush Administration, Israel is a matter of faith, and non-negotiable. The letter could actually be underscoring and supporting the analysis of the Bush administration that there is an existential confrontation with Iran. The letter almost serves as evidence of this [for Bush].

Adriana Amat, Voice of America: However, Iran did achieve an impasse in the UN Security Council, which did not take any action.

Grant Smith, IRmep: No it didn't take action.  It is now clear that where before there wasn't much sense of the direction of Russia and China, now it is clear that their interests are clearly indicated. The will not formally sign any accord stating that Iran is an international threat. They're not going to do it.

There are also other UN agencies that are on their side. Inspector Mohammed Al Baradei, on the part of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that Western leaders might have to prepare themselves to put up with, or even accept an Iran that is enriching uranium to commercial use levels.

Pedro Rodriguez Diario ABC de Espa�a : I think that Ahmadinejad's letter has abundant references to the Koran. Madeline Albright in her new books talks about this relation between religion and diplomacy, Bush is no stranger to this type of reference either, citing religion in his public discourse.

How can you negotiate anything starting from a non-negotiable religious dogma? How is religion at the root of this debate?

Grant Smith, IRmep: I think it is a very important theme in the debate. The Bush administration is constantly using religious discourse in campaigns, and making an effort to constantly raise the evangelical right in the US. However, whenever there is a direct question in a press conference, there is a denial and non-response that any particular foreign policy actions, particularly in the Middle East, is linked with religion.

So it is a strategy by Ahmadinejad to shine light on these underlying factors, toward an open discussion of these matters. At the end of the letter, Ahmadinejad states that democratic government is less important than religion. That's an important statement.

Santiago T�vara Agencia Notimex: How is the Bush administration's effort to pressure Iran limited by the situation in Iraq, now that most in the US are opposed to the Iraq invasion?

Grant Smith, IRmep: Not only that, but Iraq and other problems have resulted in polls that show that Bush has now dropped to an approval rate of only 29% in the polls. I think it is interesting, but not too important.  President Bush has some remaining years, and he seems perfectly comfortable leading without popular support.  I think the administration is going to keep fighting.

The Iran situation is not really a military threat to the US. This confrontation with Iran is a test for the administration's new military strategy of preventive war. Supposedly, Iran, in the best scenarios of the administration, should act like Libya, throwing down their arms and leaving the "evil axis" status that they're in.

But that's not happening.

So, at the heart of the preventive war theory is an example. "Look what we did in Iraq, you Iran, should take a lesson." But, again from the perspective of the Bush administration, they're not learning the lesson.

Santiago T�vara Agencia Notimex: But isn't the US developing military plans for attacking Iran?

Grant Smith, IRmep: There is always planning going on. A few weeks ago there was much scandal around Seymour Hersh who wrote about conversations with military officials in which they mentioned use of nuclear arms against subterranean Iranian facilities.

I think there are contingency plans. But according to intelligence agencies, we're ten years or more, we have time to negotiate before Iran has any real capabilities.

Adriana Amat, Voice of America: You're an expert of Middle East conflicts, would it be naive, or optimistic for me to believe that Iran really is doing what Ahmadinejad says, enriching for scientific purposes, not for arms? He asks whether scientific research isn't a fundamental right of all nations.

Grant Smith, IRmep: First of all, you're giving me too much credit. It is perfectly possible, and according to the IAEA.  inspections by the Mohamed el Baradei team, that they haven't enriched much uranium beyond commercial use levels, which is relatively low level enrichment. So that's not the problem. It is possible that they're really only going for commercial use.

The problem is really linked to the Bush administration's preventive war strategy, which holds that uncertainty, according to the Bush administration, and their theories, uncertainty becomes the threat. Any level of uncertainty becomes a problem, and there is uncertainty about the future trajectory of this program.

Pedro Rodriguez Diario ABC de Espa�a: In the UN, if there is no chapter seven sanction or declaration that Iran and its nuclear program are world threats, opening up the possibility of economic sanctions, is it realistic to talk about a "de facto" economic boycott, parallel to the international system of the United Nations. Is that a possibility?

Grant Smith, IRmep: No, that wouldn't really work. Number one, there isn't really that much trade between the US and Iran , the countries with the highest levels of trade, are the ones most opposed to sanctions. Also, in the new model of global free trade, that we now have, Iran only has to head down across the straits of Hormuz to the United Arab Emirates, or any other large gulf country, to get whatever it needs. Commercial or industrial goods, whatever.

I think the lack of interest by key traders, plus the realities of global free trade, mean that
boycotts won't work.

Adriana Amat: Did Ahmadinejad really take part in the takeover of the US embassy in 1979?

Grant Smith, IRmep: Some photos of an Iranian with a similar face surfaced, but according to subsequent analysis, it doesn't seem like he took part in the actual takeover.

It is interesting that the heightened dialogue now circulating over the letter includes questions about the CIA's covert actions with and against former Iranian presidents, against Mossadegh, installing the Shah. All of this history is beginning to enter what was a more pointed debate.

It is equally clear on the administration's part what is on the table, and what is not. The only thing the administration wants to discuss is Iran's nuclear program.

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