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Letter may signal change in debate

Iran seems to be trying to move more toward dialogue

By Aneesh Raman
CNN

Raman
CNN's Aneesh Raman reports from Iran on President Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush.

BEHIND THE SCENES

In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events.

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- You sometimes have to hear news about Iran from outside the country, and yesterday was no exception. Details of the historic letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President George W. Bush trickled in from journalists outside Iran.

At a regularly scheduled news conference, Ahmadinejad's spokesman announced, with little fanfare and without prior suggestion, that Iran's president had sent a letter to the U.S. president.

It was a news bombshell and, unlike in the United States, where we tend to know about every announcement before it's made, this one surprised many in Tehran. The few local journalists who had planned to attend the routine briefing for other reasons hit the news jackpot.

The spokesman gave few details about the letter. He simply said it had been handed to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. The Swiss have represented U.S. interests in Iran since the United States broke off diplomatic ties with Tehran amid the hostage crisis in 1980.

The tenor of the letter was described as providing a "new way to confront the current crisis in the world." How that related to the nuclear dispute, if at all, was unclear. And we were told that nobody in Tehran was going to offer specifics from the letter until President Bush had offered a response.

It was all a bit unusual, and timing seemed to be everything.

As the historic announcement was made -- the first time in more than 25 years that there has been publicly acknowledged communication between the two country's leaders -- United Nations members were meeting to try to find consensus on what to do about Iran's nuclear program.

Without any sense of what the letter said, its tone was being described as conciliatory and, perhaps, an attempt by Iran to tone down its rhetoric.

Rhetoric has been a big issue in the nuclear dispute. While there has been no direct evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran, and the government has consistently denied existence of such a program, there have been many fiery statements from President Ahmadinejad about Israel and the United States. Those statements have fueled international concern over Iran's nuclear program and in recent months raised the stakes at the United Nations.

In Tehran, we waited to hear the specifics of the letter from journalists elsewhere. Getting information from government officials here is a very deliberate process. You can't just call them up and try to get information about something like this. But by this morning details of the letter had started to emerge, before an official response came from the United States.

After the wait, it seemed the letter by Iran's president offered little in terms of specific new solutions to the nuclear stalemate. What the letter did do was change, if even in the slightest way, the landscape of this debate. Iran, which had been seen as shouting strong, sometimes bellicose statements about the United States, seems to be reaching out for dialogue.

Moderate Iranian papers said this letter, despite its lack of specifics, could lead to direct talks between the United States and Iran. That could be the case, although at the moment it seems unlikely. Hard-line papers said Ahmadinejad delivered a strong message to the world about how Iran views current global affairs.

Nobody we've interviewed in the streets and cafes of Tehran wants war. They say they support the country's right to have a peaceful civilian nuclear program, and that they can handle sanctions. But they see what war has done in Iraq, and that reality weighs heavily on minds here.

Iranians seems to view their country's nuclear program with immense pride, and the government has spent months selling it to the Iranian people as a right. To back down now, the government would need to tell the people IT got some pretty big things in return.

In the meantime, the historic letter has done little but remind the world how high the stakes are and how deep the divides are.

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