Iran's president declared in a letter to President Bush that democracy had failed worldwide and lamented "an ever-increasing global hatred" of the U.S. government. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice swiftly rejected the letter, saying it didn't resolve questions about Tehran's suspect nuclear program.
"This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort," Rice said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It isn't addressing the issues that we're dealing with in a concrete way."
Rice's comments were the most detailed response from the United States to the letter, the first from an Iranian head of state to an American president since the 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
On Tuesday, key Security Council nations agreed to present Iran with a choice of benefits or sanctions to consider in deciding whether to suspend uranium enrichment, a move that will delay a U.N. resolution to curb Iran's nuclear program, a European official said.
Political directors of the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France as well as Germany made the decision to present Tehran with the options at a meeting following more than three hours of talks by their foreign ministers Monday night that failed to reach agreement on the resolution.
The letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made only an oblique reference to Iran's nuclear intentions, asking why "any technological and scientific achievement reached in the Middle East region is translated into and portrayed as a threat to the Zionist regime."
Otherwise, it lambasted Mr. Bush for his handling of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, accused the media of spreading lies about the Iraq war and railed against the United States for its support of Israel. It questioned whether the world would be a different place if the money spent on Iraq had been spent to fight poverty.
"Would not your administration's political and economic standing have been stronger?" the letter said. "And I am most sorry to say, would there have been an ever-increasing global hatred of the American government?"
Ahmadinejad on Tuesday called his letter "words and opinions of the Iranian nation" aimed at finding a "way out of problems" facing humanity, according to the official Iranian news agency. He spoke briefly before boarding a plane for Indonesia, where he was to attend a summit of developing nations.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator called the surprise letter a new "diplomatic opening" between the two countries, but Rice said it failed to resolve the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program, the focus of intense U.N. Security Council debate this week.
"Moving the ball forward, however, Secretary of State Rice expressed the interest of the U.S. in continuing negotiations with the other political directors of the world powers who will negotiate an options package to present to Iran next week from a European Union meeting in Brussels," reports CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk.
The Iranian negotiator, Ali Larijani, also said Tuesday that Tehran had no intention of withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and promised to cooperate if the U.N. atomic watchdog agency dealt with the issue of its nuclear program, rather than the Security Council.
On Sunday, Iran's parliament threatened to ask the government to withdraw its signature from a protocol in the treaty that allows intrusive surprise inspections of nuclear facilities.
"We have no reason to leave the NPT. Our case is completely different from that of North Korea," Larijani said during a visit to Athens, Greece. "The additional protocol is one thing, and the NPT is another," he said.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Mr. Bush had been briefed on the letter, which the White House received Monday through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.
"There's nothing in here that would suggest that we're on any different course than we were before we got the letter," Rice said.
Even though the letter hardly touched on nuclear issues, officials said it appeared timed with a push by the United States and its European allies for a Security Council resolution to restrain Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Both China and Russia are opposed to leveling sanctions against Iran, and the letter could provide them support.
Rice, who said she expected no quick action on sanctions, met privately Monday night with foreign ministers from the other permanent members of the council.
Ministers from the five permanent members said they had agreed not to discuss specifics of a text, instead focusing on overall strategy. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said diplomats would need "another 10 days, 14 days" to get a resolution.
That was a clear sign that officials had not broken a stalemate with Russia and China, which oppose putting the resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, thereby making it legally binding and opening the possibility of sanctions and even military action.
"They have not yet reached full agreement, especially China and Russia have not yet accepted the possibility of a general reference to a Chapter 7 resolution," Steinmeier said. "But it's not something they have excluded at this point in time."
China urged flexibility in reaching a negotiated settlement, rejecting the "threat of force."
"The Iran nuclear dispute is at a crucial junction. We hope relevant sides can show flexibility, restraint and calmness in order to create favorable conditions for the resumption of talks," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Tuesday.
Political directors from the five countries met again Tuesday in New York, trying to bridge the gap over the best way to send a message to Iran that its pursuit of uranium enrichment must be suspended to allay international concerns that it is pursuing nuclear weapons.
Iran contends it has the right to process uranium as fuel in nuclear reactors to generate electricity.
In the letter, Ahmadinejad says that people around the world have lost faith in international institutions and questions whether the Bush administration has covered up some evidence surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks.
Liberalism and Western-style democracy "have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity," according to the letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press late Monday from diplomats who declined to be identified because the text had not formally been made public.
"Today these two concepts have failed. Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the liberal democratic systems," it read.
Ahmadinejad also suggests that Mr. Bush should look inward, saying hatred is increasing worldwide of the United States, and history shows how "repressive and cruel governments do not survive."
"How much longer will the blood of the innocent men, women and children be spilled on the streets, and people's houses destroyed over their heads? Are you pleased with the current condition of the world? Do you think present policies can continue?" the letter read.
The letter was the first from an Iranian head of state to an American president in 27 years, CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports, and could signal a demand that Ahmadinejad be treated as an equal negotiating partner in any bid to untangle the international dispute.
Diplomatic sources say that although Ahmadinejad doesn't always speak for the real power in Iran, that is, the religious authorities, he will be speaking on the nuclear issue with the backing of the supreme leader, Ayatolla Ali Khameini, adds