Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has sent a letter to President George W Bush. The letter outlines "the Iranian nation’s views and comments on international issues as well as suggestions for resolving the many problems facing humanity" according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) of Iran. The United States has swiftly and unequivocally rejected the letter:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice swiftly rejected the letter, saying it didn’t resolve questions about Tehran’s suspect nuclear program.
"This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort," Rice told The Associated Press. "It isn’t addressing the issues that we’re dealing with in a concrete way."
The Bush Administration reacted predictably to this letter from Iran. Thus, in one calculated and nuanced gambit the Iranian Government has isolated the United States diplomatically.
I am reminded of similar letters from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to President John F. Kennedy at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy’s handling of the letters from Khrushchev stands today as a triumph of diplomacy and demonstrates the power of effective diplomacy in resolving high stakes conflicts. Kennedy understood what this Administration appears not to grasp: that the need for communication is greatest at times when the crisis is at its most severe. Kennedy outmaneuvered Khrushchev by ignoring the belligerent tone of one of Khrushchev’s letters and addressing the conciliatory tone of another. In effect, Kennedy offered Khrushchev a stark choice: either war or a face saving climb down from war. Khrushchev as we all know now chose the only real option available to him.
Like Kennedy, today this Administration is confronted with a similar letter. Iran’s letter should be viewed as an opportunity by the United States. Iran has sent the letter to the United States in an attempt to gain the diplomatic upper hand in this conflict. Regardless of the content or motivation of the letter, it will be seen around the world as an olive branch from the Government of Iran. It is an opening and an invitation for the United States to open back channel communications with Iran. The Bush Administration should seize upon this opportunity by responding diplomatically and directly to Iran. Doing so has two primary benefits. First, it denies Iran the diplomatic upper hand. It shows that the United States is prepared to resolve this matter diplomatically. A positive response by Washington isolates Iran in any future escalation of this crisis. Second, the letter should be viewed as the first step in resolving this crisis diplomatically. The Bush Administration should take advantage of this letter and use it as a springboard for the opening of direct talks with Iran. This crisis with Iran will either be solved diplomatically or through violence. It is in the interest of the United States that this issue is resolved diplomatically.
Diplomacy is a tool that the United States must maintain in its arsenal. Diplomacy is called for most when dealing with states that are hostile to the interests of the United States. Diplomacy is not a game that is only played amongst friends. The goal of diplomacy is the imposition of one’s will on one’s adversary. In that, diplomacy and war have similar goals. There is little room for diplomacy if the governing doctrine of the United States will continue to be "us" versus "them" and any dialogue with "them" is seen as weakness. It is the "them" that we most need to engage and in doing so outmaneuver "them". Engaging the enemy in diplomacy is not a sign of weakness but of strength. The Bush Administration would do well to remember that before it is further isolated on the world stage.
It appears that Iran has won this diplomatic battle. There will be many more to come. If the United States and President Bush are serious about resolving this crisis diplomatically, it must start practicing the craft. Sitting in one corner like an indignant school boy and complaining how evil Iran is only isolates the United States further and helps strengthen Iran’s position in the crisis.
The United States has been given a choice: war or diplomacy. There really is only one viable choice. Whether the Bush Administration will choose wisely remains in great doubt.