The White House has publicly dismissed an extraordinary letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad which challenges President George W. Bushís attachment to Christian values by time-and-again asking how his warlike actions square up with the teachings of Jesus.
The letter also says that liberal democracy has failed and that people across the world are turning to the monotheistic religions. It asks "Is there no better way to interact with the rest of the world?" and declares: "Undoubtedly through faith in God and the teachings of the prophets, the people will conquer their problems. My question for you is: Do you not want to join them?"
This is the first time there has been any correspondence between the leaders of the two countries for 26 years. The US cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran after the Iranian revolution overthrew the Western-backed Shah and replaced him with a hard-line Islamic regime.
President Ahmadinejad has caused outrage in international circles by pursuing a nuclear programme in defiance if IAEA rules, refusing to acknowledge Israel's right to exist and questioning what he calls the 'propagandaî around the Nazi Holocaust'.
Now he has sent a long letter detailing objections to US policies and setting out religious arguments against them. The details of the missive were initially kept secret, and Tehran said that it was an attempt to create a dialogue - which they say the US is culpable for refusing.
But spokespeople for President Bush have over the past 24 hours described President Mahmoud Ahmadinejadís text as 'a tirade', 'a rant' and a 'lengthy insult' which does not even merit a reply.
Before the letter was rejected, much of the Iranian press hailed it as the "beginning of a new phase in Iranian foreign policy" and "a turning point in Iranian-American relations" that could "lead to direct talks between the two sides" and "showed the cleverness and dignity of the Islamic Republic".
What is extraordinary about the document is its overtly religious appeal. The Iranian leader asks his American counterpart: "Can one be a follower of Jesus Christ (Peace be upon him), the great Messenger of God, feel obliged to respect human rights, present liberalism as a model of civilization, announce one's opposition to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and WMDs, make 'war [on] terror' your slogan and finally, work towards the establishment of a unified international community", but at the same time pursue policies of war and militarism?
He repeats the challenge a number of times in different ways, also invoking Moses and the prophets shared by the 'People of the Book' - Muslims, Christians and Jews.
"Of course Saddam was a murderous dictator", writes Ahmadinejad. "But the [Iraq] war was not waged to topple him; the announced goal of the war was to find and destroy weapons of mass destruction. He was toppled along the way towards another goal. Nevertheless the people of the region are happy about it. I point out that throughout the many years of the ... war on Iran, Saddam was supported by the West."
After condemning the 9/11 attacks and the killing of civilians, the Iranian leader says: "My students ask me how can these actions be reconciled with duty to the tradition of Jesus Christ (PBUH), the Messenger of peace and forgiveness."
He continues: "There are prisoners in Guantanamo Bay that have not been tried, have no legal representation, their families cannot see them and are obviously kept in a strange land outside their own country. There is no international monitoring of their conditions and fate. No one knows whether they are prisoners, POWs, accused or criminals. European investigators have confirmed the existence of secret prisons in Europe, too."
On the establishment of a Jewish state after the Second World War, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad controversially says: "Let us assume that these events [surrounding the Holocaust] are true. Does that logically translate into the establishment of the state of Israel in the Middle East or support for such a state? How can this phenomenon be rationalised or explained?"
He asks: "Is support for this regime in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ (PBUH) or Moses (PBUH) or liberal values? Or are we to understand that allowing the original inhabitants of these lands - inside and outside Palestine - whether they are Christian, Muslim or Jew, to determine their fate, runs contrary to principles of democracy, human rights and the teachings of prophets? If not, why is there so much opposition to a referendum?"
The Iranian leader also raises the contrast between the invasion of Iraq and US domestic policy: "As your Excellency is aware, in some states of your country, people are living in poverty. Many thousands are homeless and unemployment is a huge problem. Of course these problems exist - to a larger or lesser extent - in other countries as well. With these conditions in mind, can the gargantuan expenses of the [Iraq] campaign - paid from the public treasury - be explained and be consistent with the aforementioned principles?"
He declares: "If billions of dollars spent on security, military campaigns and troop movement were instead spent on investment and assistance for poor countries, promotion of health, combating different diseases, education and improvement of mental and physical fitness, assistance to the victims of natural disasters, creation of employment opportunities and production, development projects and poverty alleviation, establishment of peace, mediation between disputing states and distinguishing the flames of racial, ethnic and other conflicts were would the world be today? Would not your government, and people be justifiably proud? Would not your administration's political and economic standing have been stronger? And I am most sorry to say, would there not have been an ever increasing global hatred of the American governments?"
In a passage which Iranian interpreters say is conciliatory, but which Washington diplomats are hardly likely to interpret that way, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad draws to a close by declaring: "Mr President, it is not my intention to distress anyone. If the prophets Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Joseph or Jesus Christ (PBUH) were with us today, how would they have judged such behaviour? Will we be given a role to play in the promised world, where justice will become universal and Jesus Christ (PBUH) will be present? Will they even accept us?"
He then goes on: "My basic question is this: Is there no better way to interact with the rest of the world? Today there are hundreds of millions of Christians, hundreds of millions of Muslims, and millions of people who follow the teachings of Moses (PBUH). All divine religions share and respect one word and that is monotheism or belief in a single God and no other in the world."
After going into detail about the scriptural virtues of the Divine, the Iranian leader says: "Liberalism and Western style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today these two concepts have failed. ... We increasingly see that people around the world are flocking towards a main focal point - that is the Almighty God. Undoubtedly through faith in God and the teachings of the prophets, the people will conquer their problems. My question for you is: Do you not want to join them?"
He finishes: "Mr President, whether we like it or not, the world is gravitating towards faith in the Almighty and justice and the will of God will prevail over all things", signing himself Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda Mahmood Ahmadi-Najad (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Commentators say that the letter indicates the enormous cultural and intellectual gulf between the two men. A policy analyst told BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning that many people who have little sympathy with Iran's stance on other issues would recognize the points Ahmadinejad makes about Christianity and the Iraq war.
In his own context, the letter would be seen as an appeal for dialogue, say observers. But for the US administration its tenor will be hectoring and unacceptable. Its view of the world is incomprehensible to them.
Through inclusive references to the monotheistic faiths, President Ahmadinejad probably thinks that he is appealing beyond anti-Semitism, but his blank refusal to acknowledge Israeli nationhood is a massive a roadblock not just for the US but for all those who support a bipartsian Israel-Palestine solution.
Critics will also point to the Islamic Republicís own brutal actions and to the widespread mistreatment of religious minorities, not least Christians, as undermining Ahmadinejadís sentiments.
But it will still be seen as an extraordinary moment when the President of a Muslim state which calls the USA ëthe Great Sataní, and is in turn described by the US leader as part of an 'axis of evil', seeks to call his counterpart to accountability on the basis of the teachings of Jesus.
Now in Iran there is a sense of disappointment that America has not picked up on this opportunity to start a dialogue, reports Frances Harrison for the BBC. "Just as many felt Iran's announcement in March  that it was willing to hold talks with the US on the issue of Iraq could have helped rapprochement, had the Americans been more enthusiastic."
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