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Television Panel Discussion
Voice of America - Inter American Forum
The Ahmadinejad Letter and Iran Nuclear Confrontation
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
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?
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
For example when he is talking about the actions of Bush in Iraq, the prisoners in
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
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
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
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
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.