The National Catholic Review
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.

Comments

Charles P. Weber | 5/27/2006 - 10:21am
I agree with AMERICA's editorial with reservations: dialogue in such a perilous crisis is essential. However, I was taken back with the tone of the Iranian president's letter: it really threatens a war of the two worlds: Islam and the West with the ultimate triumph of Allah.

Hans-Peter Guttmann | 6/3/2006 - 2:48pm
Deceit in Truth

Perhaps you are being true to Christian charity in your cautiously qualified moral embrace of President Ahmadinejad’s critical message to President Bush. Perhaps your moral disdain of President Bush inspires your apparent search for a balanced view of the conflict between Iran, the U.S., and Europe.

Ultimately, however, what you have written is unseemly: Just because the devil can cite scripture, we do not allow him to teach Sunday school. But is this not to demonize President Ahmadinejad and his policies?

Just so. The moral and political “credentials” of President Ahmadinejad and his policies are not remotely “ambiguous”.

You would not want President Ahmadinejad or any single one of his five hundred closest friends to teach your nieces and nephews about Jesus. They may reverence this prophet, but their understanding dissolves your faith. And their faith seeks to dissolve your civilization. Will your resolve match theirs?

Let us dialog with Hitler. An exaggeration? Quite apart from President Ahmadinejad’s notions about the Jews and the state of Israel, there are political and social reasons for viewing the regime and the mentality he represents as Islamofashist.

There is the word and there is the spirit of the word. That is why, contrary to what you write, the “moral state of the messenger” matters so profoundly. It is intellectually unclean to suppose that when the United States negotiates with Iran it is, so to speak, sitting down with those who have honest differences and are there to be reasonable.

In the diplomatic process in which the Bush administration will now directly participate there shall undoubtedly be much “listening”. For not only one can learn much from one’s enemies, if they are sufficiently serious as well dangerous, much must be learned to avoid being undone by them. All this is not to say that diplomacy is useless, that negotiation(s) must fail and then lead to war. As Winston Churchill observed, the Second World War was the most unnecessary of wars.

But to suggest that we listen to Iran for the sake of justice in our foreign policy is as morally offensive and obtuse as suggesting that we might heed Dr. Goebbels’ critique of democratic capitalism.

Charles P. Weber | 5/27/2006 - 10:21am
I agree with AMERICA's editorial with reservations: dialogue in such a perilous crisis is essential. However, I was taken back with the tone of the Iranian president's letter: it really threatens a war of the two worlds: Islam and the West with the ultimate triumph of Allah.

Hans-Peter Guttmann | 6/3/2006 - 2:48pm
Deceit in Truth

Perhaps you are being true to Christian charity in your cautiously qualified moral embrace of President Ahmadinejad’s critical message to President Bush. Perhaps your moral disdain of President Bush inspires your apparent search for a balanced view of the conflict between Iran, the U.S., and Europe.

Ultimately, however, what you have written is unseemly: Just because the devil can cite scripture, we do not allow him to teach Sunday school. But is this not to demonize President Ahmadinejad and his policies?

Just so. The moral and political “credentials” of President Ahmadinejad and his policies are not remotely “ambiguous”.

You would not want President Ahmadinejad or any single one of his five hundred closest friends to teach your nieces and nephews about Jesus. They may reverence this prophet, but their understanding dissolves your faith. And their faith seeks to dissolve your civilization. Will your resolve match theirs?

Let us dialog with Hitler. An exaggeration? Quite apart from President Ahmadinejad’s notions about the Jews and the state of Israel, there are political and social reasons for viewing the regime and the mentality he represents as Islamofashist.

There is the word and there is the spirit of the word. That is why, contrary to what you write, the “moral state of the messenger” matters so profoundly. It is intellectually unclean to suppose that when the United States negotiates with Iran it is, so to speak, sitting down with those who have honest differences and are there to be reasonable.

In the diplomatic process in which the Bush administration will now directly participate there shall undoubtedly be much “listening”. For not only one can learn much from one’s enemies, if they are sufficiently serious as well dangerous, much must be learned to avoid being undone by them. All this is not to say that diplomacy is useless, that negotiation(s) must fail and then lead to war. As Winston Churchill observed, the Second World War was the most unnecessary of wars.

But to suggest that we listen to Iran for the sake of justice in our foreign policy is as morally offensive and obtuse as suggesting that we might heed Dr. Goebbels’ critique of democratic capitalism.

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