May 8, 2006

Iran sends letter to Bush, but tone remains unclear

By Parisa Hafezi

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's president sent an unprecedented
letter to President Bush on Monday, but it was unclear whether
its contents offered any practical solution to a stand-off over
Tehran's nuclear program.

Past Iranian public messages to the United States have been
sharp rebukes, accusing Washington of bullying over Tehran's
nuclear program and of imperialistic intervention in Iraq.

Government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham said the letter
from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad broached the nuclear dispute
but declined to say whether it mentioned the possibility of
direct talks with the United States.

"In this letter, he has given an analysis ... of new ways
of getting out of the current delicate situation in the world,"
he told a weekly news conference.

Iran has been referred to the UN Security Council over
fears it is building nuclear arms, a charge Iran denies.
Washington says it would prefer a diplomatic solution to the
crisis but that sanctions and military strikes are options.

Ahmadinejad's letter is the first publicly announced
personal communication from an Iranian president to his U.S.
counterpart since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But its significance hinges on whether Iran changes
chastising rhetoric which Washington habitually spurns.

Analysts thought there was little chance that Ahmadinejad
would suggest that Iran could stop making nuclear fuel, the
move which the United Nations has demanded and that Western
diplomats see as the only way to defuse the atomic crisis.

On the contrary, they said Ahmadinejad was most likely to
address the United States from a position of strength. After
announcing that it had enriched uranium, Iran has increasingly
styled itself as a regional heavyweight.

"It is a sort of announcement or approach from a position
of power, that Iran is a global power to be reckoned with,"
Tehran-based political analyst Mahmoud Alinejad said.


Ali Ansari, a specialist in Iran at Scotland's St Andrew's
University, said the letter could be Ahmadinejad's attempt to
follow in the footsteps of revolutionary leader Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini.

"I suspect he may be trying to emulate Khomeini's letter to
(Mikhail) Gorbachev. He gave him a lesson in international
politics and told him if he carried on the Soviet Union would
collapse... (Khomeini) told him to embrace Islam," he said.

The United States and Iran severed diplomatic ties in 1980,
after radical students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and
seized 52 Americans. They were held hostage for 444 days.

Iranian and U.S. officials met secretly many times in the
1980s, famously during the "Iran Contra" scandal when
Washington sold Iran arms for help freeing U.S. hostages in

President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani made an open overture to
the United States in 1995, offering U.S. firm Conoco a $1
billion natural gas deal. President Bill Clinton rebuffed him.

U.S. officials often cite Iran's implacable hostility
toward Israel as a key obstacle to restoring ties.

More than any of his recent predecessors, Ahmadinejad has
raised hackles in the United States, by asserting that Israel
should be "wiped off the map." Bush told Germany's Bild am
Sonntag newspaper such comments should be seen as a serious
threat to Israel and other countries.

Israel lies within range of Iranian ballistic missiles.

Ahmadinejad also said the Holocaust, in which six million
Jews were killed by the Nazis, was a myth.

U.S. and Iranian officials have said they are willing to
hold talks focusing solely on co-operation to end the bloodshed
in Iraq. But Ahmadinejad has said such talks are not needed.

(Additional reporting by Parinoosh Arami and Edmund Blair
in Tehran, and Dominic Evans in London)