This February marked the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. In what may yet prove to be an historical milestone of another kind, on February 10, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reached out to President Barack Obama to signal Tehran's readiness for "talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere." Three years earlier, in March 2006, President Ahmadinejad wrote a far-ranging, 18-page letter to President George W. Bush focused on religious values, history, and international relations. During Mr. Ahmadinejad's visit to the U.N. later that year, he expressed his deep disappointment that his letter had gone unanswered.
I believed then, as I do now, that this was a missed opportunity. President Bush was given a unique opening to address the Iranian people directly and pave the way for his successor to undertake a constructive dialogue. That did not happen. Following his election, President Barack Obama received a congratulatory letter from President Ahmadinejad. In turn, President Obama sent a cordial, congratulatory message to the Iranian nation and its current leaders on the occasion of the Iranian New Year (March 21). Now, President Obama should take the next step. He should send a comprehensive letter that will answer all the major issues raised in President Ahmadinejad's previous letters and statements as well as those of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei pertaining to U.S.-Iranian relations in general and those of the past 30 years in particular. To that end, I submit the following draft letter to the Obama administration.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Mr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
President of the Islamic Republic of Iran,
Upon assuming the presidency of the United States, I have reviewed your past public utterances and written communications concerning the U.S.-Iranian relations and outstanding issues facing our two countries.
Let me, therefore, begin by stating that Americans are deeply mindful and respectful of the renowned achievements and rich cultural legacy of Iranian civilization, which reflect an unparalleled degree of historical continuity. We are especially cognizant of the role that religion has played in your country's development. Some 2,500 years ago, Iranians gave the world Zoroastrianism, which among its core tenets affirmed man's absolute free will to choose between evil and a Divine Creator, and our common destiny to face a final Day of Judgment. Although manifested in many different forms, these ancient tenets have been shared by the world's great religions. They underscore the basic truth that human beings not only can decide for themselves what is right and wrong, but also are accountable for their actions.
In the sixth century B.C., Iranians gave us the Achaemenid Empire, and its enlightened leaders, Cyrus and Darius. It was Cyrus the Great who decreed that "all should be free to worship their gods without impediments or persecution"—a proclamation unique, not only for its time, but for centuries to come. Ending the Babylonian captivity of the Jews, Cyrus allowed their return to Palestine, and supported their right to live by biblical law. His respect for cultural diversity and rights for the empire's "many people of many tongues" was emulated by his successors, making the Achaemenid Empire one of the most tolerant and pluralistic in history. This far-flung empire also served as a bridge between East and West, as Iranian art and architecture adorned the great cities of the empire from Babylon to Persepolis. The Achaemenids' unique administrative system became a model for other empires, while its emphasis on the teaching of science and philosophy, further advanced by its successor, the Sassanid Empire, greatly influenced the eventual development of nascent universities throughout the region and beyond.
Iran has endured many trials and tribulations over the ensuing centuries. Although conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century and converted to Islam, Iranians, drawing on their own early beliefs, helped to develop and then adhered to Shi'a Islam. It was during this period that Iran became the seat of Islamic learning and gave to the world its science, philosophy, theology, arts, and architecture. At the dawn of the 16th century, the Safavids, with the glorious city of Isfahan as their capital, unified Iran and adopted Shi'a Islam as their empire's official religion. In the process, Iran was not only able to retain its cultural distinctiveness but also to infuse Islam with its great humanistic traditions. Reviving Iran's ancient devotion to religious tolerance, the Safavid king, Shah Abbas, treated Iran's Christians and Jews benevolently, and welcomed those fleeing persecution from other lands. It was this reputation that prompted Europe's Christian powers to seek his collaboration.
Vartan Gregorian is president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a grant-making institution founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1911.