The recent letter from Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President George W. Bush raises an important question: Does an interlocutor have to have clean hands in order for his or her words to be worthy of consideration? The actions of Iran’s leader certainly give the world much cause for concern. At the same time, his questions about the ethical implications of American foreign policy are not in and of themselves easily dismissed. In point of fact, the Bush administration and the Iranian government both would be well advised to listen closely to the criticisms being mounted by the other.
Since becoming president in June 2005, Ahmadinejad has made threatening overtures toward Israel, saying that it must be wiped off the map. Iran also appears to be pursuing enrichment of uranium not simply for power, as allowed by international law, but for weapons, and is restricting the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ability to investigate.
On one level, Ahmadinejad’s 18-page letter to President Bush can be interpreted as a rhetoric-laden attack on the West and its values. Those with insight, he writes, can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems. As a tactic the letter repeatedly takes the Bush administration to task for inconsistencies between faith and action: Can one be a follower of Jesus Christ (peace be upon him), the Great Messenger of God, he writes, but at the same time have countries attacked? At what price? Later: If prophet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Joseph or Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) were with us today, how would they have judged such behavior?
Obviously, in part this is an attempt by Ahmadinejad to curry favor in the Muslim world and elsewhere. Ahmadinejad has in fact indicated that he believes Iran is expressing the concerns of many nations. Resistance of the Iranian nation will not only be for Iran, he has insisted since sending the letter, but for all independently-minded states, like Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Egypt and other Muslim countries.
Even with his ambiguous credentials, the questions Ahmadinejad has asked are important ones. Actions like pre-emptive war, rendition or torture do not fit well with the Christian values espoused by both President Bush and the majority of people in the United States, and that gap should be an ongoing cause of concern for the Bush administration. So, too, should the similar perceptions of the United States held by many in the world. Many countries likely agree with Ahmadinejad’s evaluation of the United States as out of touch with its own Christian and democratic values, and also as overly dominant on the world stage. Protests follow key members of the Bush administration wherever they go, and other foreign leaders are speaking out against U.S. policy.
At the same time, in the case of Iran Bush is dealing with issues that cannot simply be ignored. How shall the world deal with countries that ignore the international rule of law, especially with regard to the development of nuclear weapons? Further, what are the implications of nuclear growth in the Middle East? Vice President Dick Cheney has warned of the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the region, and this too is an issue that demands sustained consideration. Who should have the right to a nuclear arsenal? Israel, widely thought to be a nuclear state? Should anyone? On what basis?
While some have condemned Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice for her quick dismissal of Ahmadinejad’s letter, it is true that the letter made no mention of the nuclear questions. As Rice said afterward, It isn’t addressing the issues we’re dealing with in a concrete way. Still, Madeleine Albright has suggested it would help to look at it as an invitation to further dialogue. Saying or doing nothing is simply not a viable option.
The possibility that the United States and Iran will continue to talk past each other or dismiss each other for their moral failings or dodges is deeply troubling. During the Cuban missile crisis, Pope John XXIII wrote to world leaders, With your hand upon your heart, may you listen to the anguished cry from all points of land that rises toward heaven: Peace! Peace! No matter the moral state of the messenger, there is much to be learned by listening. Ignoring or dismissing the questions of the other out of hand is perilous. In his letter President Ahmadinejad writes, My basic question is this: Is there no better way to interact with the rest of the world? President Bush and President Ahmadinejad alike should consider this question carefully.