In the early afternoon of Monday, 8 May, a sealed A4 envelope was delivered by the Iranian Foreign Ministry to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. The wire agencies were told that it contained a letter from Iran’s president, intended for his US counterpart. The news travelled fast. Ahmadinejad had written a letter. Might this be a turning point in US-Iran relations? The US denied any knowledge of it, while the Swiss merely confirmed its arrival and said that it would be sent on ‘as soon as possible’. That turned out to be pretty soon, because before senior representatives of the UN Security Council sat down to dinner in New York that evening, for sea bass at the Waldorf Astoria, Condoleezza Rice had been apprised of its contents. On its arrival in Washington, presumably after having been tested for anthrax, the letter was rapidly translated from the Farsi and judged for the purposes of public pronouncements to be ‘rambling’, empty of concrete proposals, and – to cap it all – 18 pages long.

One person at dinner who may not have been immediately privy to its existence was Margaret Beckett, Blair’s latest foreign secretary. At a post-dinner press conference, less than 24 hours into her new job, she concluded that an attack on Iran was ‘not the intention’, retreating from her predecessor’s more interventionist assertion that it was ‘inconceivable’. Despite her having briefly led the Labour Party before Blair’s elevation, more than a decade ago, and despite knowing a thing or two about intentions and how they change, Beckett seems not to have known that the letter was privately causing ripples in Washington and that intentions were being considered. In fact, she seems not to have known very much at all. On her way back to London the next day, she said: ‘I am flying by the seat of my pants but, I was told by one of my officials this morning, quite gracefully.’ Her aide’s comment would have been reassuring. She has a good collection of colourful trouser-suits – much bolder than Condi’s sober skirts – and it must have been nice for her to hear that at 63 she can still carry them off.

What flummoxed Washington about Ahmadinejad’s letter – which was indeed rambling – wasn’t so much its content as the fact that it had been written at all. In 1980 the US dismantled its embassy in Tehran after the hostage crisis in which 52 Americans were held captive for 444 days. Since then, US interests have been represented by a section of the Swiss Embassy, and for a quarter of a century there has been no communication between US and Iranian heads of state. Private negotiations have been conducted by foreign ministers, but a letter from president to president is unprecedented. One of the claims Ahmadinejad makes is that after Khomeini’s return from exile the US Embassy was ‘a headquarters supporting the activities of those opposing the Islamic Republic’. Not a very controversial statement, you might think, since in certain states the sponsorship of anti-government groups is the US Embassy’s main function. The $75 million for ‘democracy promotion activities in Iran’ that Rice was granted last month by Congress is money that would be more effectively spent if there were still a US Embassy in Tehran. An embassy would also make the gathering of intelligence much easier. In April’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear activities, poor John Negroponte, the national intelligence director, was forced to say: ‘It’s conceivable that they are exaggerating their progress, but I don’t have any knowledge to confirm that.’

The letter, which Washington declared to be undeserving of a reply, isn’t quite the rant we were led to imagine. There are some nasty insinuations – the Holocaust hasn’t been proved to have happened, 9/11 would have been hard to pull off without the co-operation of US security agencies – but it isn’t an attack on America so much as a rhetorical exercise on the failure of liberal democracy. Along the way it addresses various specific issues – Iraq, Guantanamo, American double standards over human rights abuses – but more generally tries to appeal to a shared religious sense. That attempt was bound to fail, but what Ahmadinejad does share with Bush is a way with grand concepts. To avoid being confused by the letter’s unfamiliar catechistic structure, it helps to arrange its four thousand translated words in alphabetical order, which makes the whole thing read more straightforwardly. There’s a certain amount of fiery grandiloquence (‘abandon abduction abide ablaze’), but there are also moments of telegraphic irony (‘administration’s advised advocated affairs affected Afghanistan’) and moments of pathos (‘forcing foreign forgiveness’). An alphabeticised Bush also comes across much more poetically than the one we’re used to: in January’s State of the Union address his mention of ‘faithful faithful fallen fallen falling Fallujah’ was remarkably to the point. It isn’t so clear what he meant when he said ‘eliminate elite embryos’. Was this evidence of new thinking on Roe v. Wade?

The artist Simon Popper would like the Ahmadinejad letter. He has printed 1000 copies of Ulysses, bound in dark green paper, with the words alphabetically arranged. The first five pages are taken up with the letter ‘a’, but it soon takes off into pleasing Joycean babble. ‘Mamma mamma Mamma Mamma mammal MAMMAMUFFLERED mammary’: that sort of thing. The closing pages are a long sequence of very pretty punctuation marks. But Popper’s interests don’t stop with books. At the same time as his ICA installation of stacks of copies of Ulysses, a Glasgow exhibition included Façades (2005), which consisted of photographs of all 140 foreign embassies in London. One of the difficulties of the project, he said, was that security guards and police were constantly questioning him. It would be instructive to know which embassies were most welcoming. The Swiss, perhaps?

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