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Iran's president writes unprecedented letter to Bush

UNITED NATIONS—Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent an unprecedented letter to President Bush on Monday in an apparent effort to ease tensions over Iran's nuclear programs, Iranian and U.S. officials said.

The precise contents of the letter, the first such communication between an Iranian head of government and a U.S. president in a generation, were not immediately disclosed.

But U.S. officials said Monday evening, after the document arrived in Washington, that it contained no substantive proposals to break the deadlock over Iranian nuclear activities that the West suspects are aimed at building atomic weapons.

"It doesn't appear to do anything to address the concerns of the international community," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters traveling with Bush on Air Force One. "There are a number of concerns that the international community has with the regime and the letter doesn't appear to do anything to address those concerns."

Another U.S. official, who said he had seen a translation of the letter, described it as a lengthy "philosophical view of the world" on Ahmadinejad's part. The words "nuclear program" were nowhere to be found in the document, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Other officials said they suspected the Iranian president's move was timed to complicate efforts by Britain, France and the United States to toughen United Nations' demands that Tehran cease uranium enrichment and answer questions about its nuclear work.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met over dinner on Monday with her counterparts from Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union in an effort to forge a common strategy on Iran.

Last week, Britain and France introduced a draft U.N. Security Council resolution to invoke Chapter 7 of the U.N. charter, which allows for the use of economic sanctions or military force to resolve threats to international peace and security. Russia and China have balked. Neither wants a resolution on Iran that could lead to punitive economic sanctions or the eventual use of military force.

In Tehran, government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham said Ahmadinejad had written to Bush and proposed "new solutions for getting out of international problems and the current fragile situation of the world," news agencies reported. Elham declined to be more specific.

Ahmadinejad oversees a hard-line Iranian government that appears set on returning the country to the early fervor of its 1979 Islamic revolution. He has denied that the Holocaust took place and has threatened several times to eliminate Israel.

But officials of his government have occasionally hinted that they would be open to direct talks with the United States.

Senior U.S. officials indicated that there was little likelihood of that. They reiterated that Iran's nuclear program is a problem for the international community, not just Washington, and said Iran must submit to U.N. demands to halt uranium enrichment.

"The international community has been very clear to Iran what it needs to do," Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley said earlier Monday. "It needs to return to the suspension of its nuclear activities in order to open the door for a diplomatic resolution," Hadley said on NBC's "Today."

Yet the letter comes as the White House is fielding increasing calls to open direct talks with Iran. The pressure is coming from former U.S. statesmen, some members of Congress from Bush's own party, and privately from a few allied foreign governments, including Germany's.

Bush has authorized the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, to hold talks with Iranian representatives on stabilizing Iraq, but those talks are on hold pending the formation of a permanent Iraqi government.

Ahmadinejad's letter was sent to the United States via the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. Switzerland is the designated intermediary between the two countries.

A European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Britain and France hope for a vote on their draft resolution by week's end. It would give a still-undetermined period of time for Iran to comply before the Security Council considers tougher measures.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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