- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 9, 2006

TEHRAN — Iran’s president yesterday sent President Bush an unprecedented letter that his regime said could provide a “diplomatic opening” between the two countries, but the White House dismissed it as offering nothing new.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s long letter to Mr. Bush proposed “new solutions for getting out of international problems and the current fragile situation of the world,” Iranian government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham said.

However, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, said in Turkey that the letter did not reflect a “softening” in Tehran’s position.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in New York to confer on Iran’s nuclear program with her counterparts on the U.N. Security Council, said Mr. Ahmadinejad’s overture to Mr. Bush was “assuredly not a proposal.”

“There is nothing in this letter that in any way addresses any of the issues, really, that are on the table in the international community: the nuclear program, in a straightforward way; the terrorism issues,” Miss Rice said.

“I think it would be best to say it’s broadly philosophical in its character. It’s 17 or 18 pages,” she said. “There is nothing in here that would suggest that we are on any different course than we were before we got the letter.”

Neither government would disclose the specifics of the letter, but it appeared timed to blunt the U.S. drive for a Security Council vote this week to restrain the Islamic regime’s nuclear ambitions.

News of the letter also was a striking change in the fiery Mr. Ahmadinejad’s campaign to vilify Washington and its allies as bullies.

Iran contends it has the right to process uranium as fuel in nuclear reactors to generate electricity. The United States, Britain and France are concerned that the program is a cover for making nuclear weapons.

The letter was the first from an Iranian head of state to an American president in 27 years and comes as the United States presses for U.N. sanctions to pressure Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment program.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Mr. Bush had been briefed on the letter, which the administration received through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. Mr. McClellan would not comment on whether it was signed by the Iranian president.

Earlier, John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said he was skeptical the letter would change the Bush administration’s mind.

“I don’t know what offer they would want to make, but it wouldn’t be surprising. It would fit the paradigm of their activity before, and then once the squeeze lets up a little bit, back they go to enrichment, back they go to perfecting their conversion technology, back they go to the pursuit of nuclear weapons,” Mr. Bolton said.

The Iranian spokesman who disclosed the communication did not mention the nuclear standoff and said the missive spoke to the larger U.S.-Iranian conflict, which dates to the 1979 hostage crisis.

The linchpin to any better understanding between Washington and Tehran, however, would be movement toward a solution of the nuclear issue.

Mr. Larijani said the Iranians were looking for a positive response but would be patient.

“Perhaps it could lead to a new diplomatic opening. It needs to be given some time,” Iran’s chief nuclear negitiator said in a television interview in which he cautioned that the “tone of the letter is not something like softening.”

Washington has publicly sought renewed contact with Tehran through the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been authorized to speak to Iranian officials about security in Iraq.

U.S. officials say the talks await selection of a new Iraqi government and were to be limited to Iraq security issues. But such meetings could provide an opportunity to broaden discussions about the U.S.-Iranian relationship.

Mr. Ahmadinejad travels today to Indonesia, where Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said, “We support nuclear development for peaceful purposes, especially energy, but we consistently object to nuclear weapons proliferation.”

The United States backs efforts by Britain and France to win Security Council approval for a U.N. resolution that would threaten further measures if Iran does not suspend uranium enrichment.

Russia and China, the two other veto-holding members of the Security Council, oppose sanctions.

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