What President Obama's Letter to Iran Should Really Say

The Obama administration is denying reports that a response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s letter of congratulations, or one to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is being drafted by the State Dept.   When such a letter is finally written, this is what it ought to say... 

Dear President Ahmadinejad: 

Thank you for your kind note of congratulations of November 6.  I am sure you recognize that I was not free to respond to it in any substantive way until I had actually assumed the office of President of the United States just over two weeks ago.  

It is indeed my hope that there will be genuine change in the relations between Iran and the US.  In contrast to the approaches of my predecessors during the past three decades, I believe that talks or negotiations will be most fruitful if they address the concerns of Iran’s leaders and the threats felt by the Iranian people, not just our own. You and I both ought to begin by recognizing that some Iranian interests, as well as some American objectives, will be far better served by communication and dialogue than by confrontation.   

First, the American people need to recognize and share your concern about the future of Afghanistan.  Iranians were threatened by developments in Afghanistan long before Americans were. Nearly two and half million Afghans fled the horrors and hardships of the 1979 Soviet occupation of their country and the ensuing civil war by crossing into Iran and taking refuge there.   Over a decade ago, the Taliban murdered seven Iranian diplomats and threatened to attack your cities.  We are overdue in expressing our appreciation of Iran’s quiet but cooperative assistance during the early stages of the Operation Enduring Freedom.  Branding Iran as part of an “axis of evil” two months later was unfair and unwise, as well as hurtful to the Iranian people. 

We share your determination to put a stop to the activities of Afghan drug smugglers who finance the acquisition of weapons by the Taliban at the expense of the health and well being of eleven million Iranians.  Their activities both compound the drug problem that plagues Iran and also expands the global spread of AIDS.  You do not wish these scourges to undermine your society and neither do we.  

Iran and the U.S. share environmental concerns.  While we have emphasized -- and perhaps even overemphasized -- your country's quest for nuclear technology, we have said nothing about Iran’s efforts to reduce the harm to the global commons that results from over-reliance on hydrocarbon fuels.  Our own Department of Energy website acknowledges that the ancient Persians were the first to develop windmills, but we have said nothing about the twenty first century wind technology that Iran has been developing, utilizing and sharing with its neighbors.  Your great, ancient and beautiful city of Shiraz is in the process of being linked to your nation’s electrical grid by means of solar technology.  You are undertaking new hydroelectric projects to reduce your dependence on oil and gas, in an effort to reduce the pollution in your cities.  Iran’s commitment to developing alternative energy sources is both clear and commendable.  

Instead of incessantly using the term “meddling” to describe Iran’s active involvement in regional affairs, we need to recognize the hospitality of the Iranian people in opening their borders to refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq for the past two decades.   In the mid-1980s, when Iran was engaged in a war with Iraq in which 300,000 Iranians would die, Iran took in 300,000 Iraqi refugees, two thirds of them Iraqi citizens who spoke no Farsi, at a time when hundreds of thousands of Iranians were being uprooted and displaced. Iran received no international assistance as it provided food and shelter to 2.3 million Afghan refugees.  I say these things not as concessions, but simply to acknowledge the facts.  

For too long, we Americans have been the loudest voice in the room, excoriating Iran for the things we disagree about, while we have remained silent about Iran’s efforts, achievements, or its contributions to regional stability.  Your interests and ours do not, and will not, always coincide, nor will we always view the challenges facing the world from the same perspective.  Nonetheless, Iranians and Americans need to speak with one another, to share ideas, to work together on issues about which we already agree in principle, and to learn from one another on those with which we are in accord in practice.  We can then, with mutual respect, build upon the relationship we have created to approach the more difficult issues -- those that have locked our relationship into a confrontational dynamic for the past 30 years.          

Thank you for your good wishes.  

Most sincerely, 

Barack Hussein Obama

President, United States of America  

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