The Iranian Letter to President Bush: Analysis and Recommendations

by Bud Goodall, Linell Cady, Steven R. Corman, Kelly McDonald, Mark Woodward, & Carolyn Forbes

On May 9, 2006, world media outlets released news of a letter written by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to U.S. President George W. Bush. The letter was the first official communiqué from the Iranian government to the U.S. since the two countries broke diplomatic ties in 1979. The letter was dismissed by U.S. spokespersons as a “rambling” narrative or as a “meandering screed” that did not address the current U.S. concerns over the nuclear energy program initiated by President Ahmadinejad. For the next few days, world media sources repeated the U.S. dismissal while offering their own assessments of the meaning and significance of the communiqué.

Reactions to the letter were mixed. Controversies over how the incident was handled pointed to the “unsophisticated response” made by U.S. officials to the overture, however diplomatically unorthodox its format. Sources throughout the world indicated that not only had the intention of the letter been misrepresented by U.S. officials, but its meaning had also been misinterpreted, thus fueling ongoing speculation that any issues raised by President Ahmadinejad were secondary to the stated U.S. goal of discussing only nuclear development in Iran.

We answer three key questions: (1) How did the controversy play in international media outlets? (2) What was the intention and content of the letter, and was it, in fact, a “meandering screed?” (3) What lessons may be derived from this incident to guide future decisions about U.S. strategic communication?

Our analysis provides the following conclusions:

  • The letter is addressed to President Bush but is intended to reach a broad international audience—perhaps all believers. As such, it represents a seemingly distinctive ecumenical approach to organizing all monotheist religions against the evil influences of Western style democracy and liberalism.
  • The letter is not a “meandering screed” but instead is an organized and coherent statement that provides a focused narrative.
  • The letter represents a dakwah or invitation to President Bush, which may be interpreted as a call to Islam and/or a prelude to violence.

Two broad recommendations are generated from our analysis: (1) the U.S. needs to develop a more theoretically and culturally informed independent process for analyzing and managing diplomatic communication; and (2) the U.S. needs to open communication with President Ahmadinejad by formulating a response to the letter in order