BOB GARFIELD: The letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to George Bush was released on Monday morning and broke an epistolary freeze between the two countries' leaders nearly three decades long. What the letter lacked in clarity, it made up for in length – 18 pages of U.S. foreign policy criticism, defensiveness and religious fervor. But the letter avoided the issue that has been at the fore for months - Iran's nuclear ambitions - and it was dismissed almost immediately by the White House. Meanwhile, a second letter from an Iranian official close to Ayatollah Ali Khomeini was sent to Time magazine and struck a very different tone. Jefferson Morley writes the World Opinion Roundup for The Washington Post Online. Jeff, welcome back to the show.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's start with the second letter for just a moment. Time magazine? Isn't that an unusually public backchannel?
JEFFERSON MORLEY: I think it is. I think it's remarkable and a sign of some disagreement in Iranian ruling circles about the best way to proceed here. Unlike the president's letter, Rohani's letter is phrased in diplomatic language, is a diplomatic opening, so I think that they're trying to signal that they want to talk.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, then let's get to Ahmadinejad's little missive. He's been portrayed, in the U.S. press anyway, as an amateur and pretty much a whack job. Are those characterizations showing up elsewhere in the world?
JEFFERSON MORLEY: To some extent, yes. You don't have quite the edge that you have in U.S. commentary in the overseas commentary. And around this letter, Ahmadinejad, really for the first time, got some positive media, people crediting him with some skill in breaking the taboo on communications between the two governments and doing so at a time when the U.S. was failing to come up with agreement among the Western allies about how to approach Iran. Especially in the Gulf region, there was a feeling that the U.S. had missed an opportunity. This is from an editorial in The Arab News, which is a daily in Riyadh. They said, “In rejecting the letter so brusquely, Washington has shown a degree of diplomatic naivete. It may not have been an attempt to initiate dialogue with the U.S., but merely a diatribe against President Bush. Even so, it could have been used as a bridge for further contacts with Tehran. A carefully worded response on which dialogue could be built should have been the next step.” The Gulf News, which is in United Arab Emirates, a little more of an independent news outlet, had very much the same line. At the same time, you also have a note in the foreign press of mistrust of Iran, and this is especially strong in those Persian Gulf countries which are smaller than Iran and fear its revolutionary Shiite ideology. In Asharq Alawsat, which is another Saudi-funded paper published in London and read widely in the Arab world, the editor-in-chief wrote in response, "Iran's latest message confirmed the fears of those who see its actions as an aspiration for leadership. Iran seeks to control the region and the Middle East and become its policeman. This will lead to the breakdown of the peace process and the sabotaging of the Iraqi dream." I think that's the two themes that I'm seeing in the Middle Eastern press in response to the letter.
BOB GARFIELD: And what about the rest of the Muslim world outside of the Arab peninsula? I mean, I noticed that Ahmadinejad got a very affectionate reception in Indonesia this week.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Yeah, I think that his uncompromising stance of standing up to the U.S. gets some positive reaction, and the Indonesians were clearly playing that up. A Turkish commentator on Friday said in The Lebanese Daily Star that Turkey's very concerned about the prospect of an armed conflict between the United States and Iran on its borders. So there's a short-term perspective of how do you get along with Iran and a long-term perspective of is the United States going to war? In the Bahrain paper this week, a lead story is about, you know, would a U.S. attack on Iran be legal? You can't overestimate how much this question is beginning to preoccupy people.
BOB GARFIELD: Jeff, the U.N. Security Council has been divided on the kind of pressure it should apply to Iran as the tension about nuclear inspections grows. China and Russia continued to argue this week about sanctions. They think that they will alienate Iran even further. How did the press in Russia react to the letter?
JEFFERSON MORLEY: In Russia, there's more of a range of debate around what really is Russia's core interest here. In the English-language Russian press, you get a variety of points of view. The main concern is they're not going to be a rubber stamp for the United States on this one. They have no interest in military action in Iran. In China, they follow the line of the government very closely. And the argument in the press there, in the sites like The People's Daily Online, is that even sanctions would be an unacceptable disruption of the world economy.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jeff. Well, once again, thanks very much.
JEFFERSON MORLEY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Jefferson Morley writes the World Opinion Roundup for The Washington Post Online. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the high price politics pays for media consultation on both sides of the border.