WASHINGTON What would President Bush say to the Iranian people if he had a chance to communicate directly with them?
I was able to put that question to Bush in a one-on-one interview in the Oval Office Wednesday. His answer made clear that the administration wants a diplomatic solution to the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program one premised on an American recognition of Iran's role as an important nation in the Middle East.
"I would say to the Iranian people: We respect your history. We respect your culture. We admire the entrepreneurial skills of your people. I would say to the Iranian people that I recognize the importance of your sovereignty that you're a proud nation, and you want to have a positive future for your citizens,'' Bush said, answering quickly and without notes.
"In terms of the nuclear issue,'' he continued, "I understand that you believe it is in your interest your sovereign interest, and your sovereign right to have nuclear power. I understand that. But I would also say to the Iranian people, there are deep concerns about the intentions of some in your government who would use knowledge gained from a civilian nuclear power industry to develop a weapon that can then fulfill the stated objectives of some of the leadership (to attack Israel and threaten the United States). And I would say to the Iranian people that I would want to work for a solution to meeting your rightful desires to have civilian nuclear power.''
"I would tell the Iranian people that we have no desire for conflict,'' Bush added.
He expressed hope that Iran would help stabilize Iraq, but he said the best channel for this dialogue would be through Iraq's new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who has been in Tehran this week. And he called for a new program of cultural and educational exchanges between the United States and Iran, as a way of encouraging greater contact and trust.
Bush's comments were a clear public signal of the administration's strategy in the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program. In recent days, the Washington rumor mill has been bubbling with talk that the administration is planning military options for dealing with the crisis, perhaps in the near term. But Bush's remarks went in a different direction. His stress was on reassuring Iran that the United States recognizes its ambitions to be an advanced nation, with a robust civilian nuclear power program and a role in shaping the Middle East commensurate with its size and power. The red lines for America involve nuclear weapons, military threats to Israel or the United States, and Iran's links to terrorist groups.
Bush's comments tracked the offer the United States and its allies have made to Iran if it agrees to suspend its enrichment of uranium. He proposed that the West supply enriched uranium to Iran and other countries, and collect the nuclear waste. He argued that this global program ``would be a solution that would answer a deep desire from the Iranian people to have a nuclear power industry.''
On Iraq, Bush said Maliki's visit to Tehran was ``aimed at convincing the Iranians that a stable Iraq is in their interest. They have said so many times, and I think Prime Minister Maliki is now attempting to find out what that means, and how the Iraqi government can work with the Iranians to create a sense of stability.''
Bush said he had read commentary criticizing Maliki's trip. ``I disagree. Prime Minister Maliki should go to Iran. It is in Iraq's national interest that relations with Iran be such that there are secure borders and no cross-border issues, including the exportation of equipment that can harm Iraqi citizens as well as coalition troops, and the exportation of extremism that can prevent this young (Iraqi) democracy from flourishing.''
Our discussion followed the 12-day visit to America by Iran's former president, Mohammad Khatami. I asked Bush why he had approved this visit by a high-level Iranian, and what he thought it had accomplished. ``One of the dilemmas facing (American) policymakers is to understand the nature, the complex nature of the Iranian regime. And I thought it would be beneficial for our country to receive the former leader, Khatami, to hear what he had to say. And as importantly for him, to hear what Americans had to say.'' He wanted Khatami to understand that on the nuclear issue and Hezbollah's attacks on Israel, ``It's not just George W. Bush speaking.''
The Khatami visit ``said that the United States is willing to listen to voices,'' Bush explained. ``And I hope that sends a message to the Iranian people that we're an open society, and that we respect the people of Iran.'' Clearly, the White House wants to reach out to segments of Iranian opinion beyond the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
I asked Bush what next steps he would favor in opening dialogue with Iran. ``I would like to see more cultural exchanges,'' he said. ``I would like to see university exchanges. I would like to see more people-to-people exchanges.''
``I know that the more we can show the Iranian people the true intention of the American government,'' Bush concluded, ``the more likely it is that we will be able to reach a diplomatic solution to a difficult problem.'' I came away with a sense that Bush is serious about finding a peaceful solution to the nuclear crisis, and that he is looking hard for ways to make the connections between America and Iran.
(David Ignatius' e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org)
(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group