letter written by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and delivered to US President George W. Bush on Monday was, at the very least, historic. Early reports in the media billed the 18-page letter as a "breakthrough" in US-Iranian relations, which have been frozen since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the 1980 takeover of America's embassy in Tehran. Ahmadinejad wanted to ease world tensions over Iran's nuclear program, according to Iranian diplomatic sources, but Iran's nuclear program is just what he failed to discuss. "Why is it," wrote the Iranian president, who's famous for declaring that Israel should cease to exist, "that any technological and scientific achievement reached in the Middle East region is translated into and portrayed as a threat to the Zionist regime?"
This glancing reference to the program wasn't enough for Washington. "This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort," US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Associated Press. "It isn't addressing the issues that we're dealing with in a concrete way."
Still, the letter was a deft move for Ahmadinejad's image in the Middle East. It forced Washington to reject a personal overture from Tehran, and it philosophized in Islamic terms about the decline of the West. "Liberalism and Western-style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity," Ahmadinejad wrote true to his hard-liner stance. "Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems."
German papers reacted on Tuesday with plenty of skepticism. "If Ahmadinejad wanted to compromise in the nuclear standoff, there would be other ways to make suggestions or trustworthy progress," writes the Financial Times Deutschland. "The demands of the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency have been unanimous and clear: Iran has to stop its new program of enriching uranium." The paper thinks the very fact that Washington and Tehran have avoided diplomatic contact for over 25 years makes Ahmadinejad's letter "a big public-relations push." In particular, Washington's unwillingness to answer may give Russia and China a reason to stall in Security-Council talks this week. "The better Tehran succeeds in driving a wedge between the US, Europe, Russia, and China, the more time it can buy before the Security Council makes another resolution … But the key question is, and remains: Will Iran freeze its enrichment activities -- or not?"
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung also doubts letter has any diplomatic value. "The letter written by the Iranian president to the American one simply proves how good and right it is to handle Iran's nuclear program through the Security Council," writes the paper. "Tehran doesn't like to see itself as an outsider in international politics, any more than China and Russia will go on protecting Iran's right to a nuclear program. But this doesn't mean that Iran has given up its tactics of deflection and division."
The right-wing daily Die Welt, meanwhile, sees a glimmer of hope in the letter. "The preconditions for peace are in fact good. For years the Americans have acted like Iran's ally. First they eliminated the Shiite nation's enemy in the east, the Taliban, and then its mortal enemy in the west, Saddam Hussein. Finally they installed a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad." The paper adds that Iran's help in stabilizing Iraq would be useful to Washington, and that the current struggle over Iran's nuclear program is hard to resolve through economic or political sanctions and dangerous to settle with airstrikes. "Negotiations, then, might be the only way. At least it's worth a try. Except that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is determined to turn his nation into a nuclear power," writes Die Welt, wrapping its own argument into a Gordian knot. "The only person who can find a compromise under these circumstances may be the Twelfth Imam, whose second coming Iranians (like Ahmadinejad) expect."
Other papers in Germany chose to address the issue on their editorial pages with cartoons on Tuesday. The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung carried a sketch of Ahmadinejad handing an envelope addressed to "Mr. Bush" out from a protective radioactive barrel, and the financial daily Handelsblatt ran a comic of the Iranian president scribbling his letter with a missile.
-- Michael Scott Moore, 1:00 p.m. CET
An Endgame for Villepin?
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung thinks Villepin's career would be over already if Jacques Chirac weren't behind him. Villepin has been a loyal cabinet member since the start of Chirac's first term in 1995. However, he "has played a dirty role, perhaps with approval, maybe even on orders from the president. In normal circumstances he would no longer be in government. But these aren't normal circumstances." The paper writes that Sarkozy could "upset the balance of power" within Chirac's government if Villepin leaves, and some analysts think he might take over as prime minister -- which would spell an early end to Chirac's presidency.
The left-wing Berliner Zeitung wonders about the implications in Europe if Villepin falls. "(He) is the least-loved French prime minister since the Fifth Republic was established in 1958, according to opinion polls," writes the paper, noting that the student riots in March and April were aimed at him (and an employment law he supported). "Chirac, after 11 years in office, has never been so unpopular. The risk is that French people will turn their backs not only on the scandal's leading personalities -- who seem obsessed with themselves and their own grip on power -- but also the large, mainstream parties." The commentator mentions a protest vote in 2002 that lifted the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen dangerously close to the presidency, as well as the surprise "non" vote against the EU constitution in 2005. French "displeasure," writes the paper, could send shudders through all of Europe.
-- Michael Scott Moore, 3:00 p.m. CET
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