Yesterday evening, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent a couple of hours taking questions from representatives of the American peace movement. He appeared in a ballroom at New York’s Grand Hyatt hotel, at an event facilitated by the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
The questions to Ahmadinjead weren’t softballs: What about Iran’s crackdown on human rights and dissidents? Iranian policy toward Israel? Treatment of women? Iran’s foot-dragging on issuing visas even to peace movement representatives? And, of course, the big issues: What about a Grand Bargain with the United States? And will Iran accept a compromise on its nuclear fuel enrichment program?
The answers were, well, less illuminating than the questions.
In his preliminary speech, Ahmadinejad adopted the role of gentle, lecturing professor. Dressed in a gray jacket and off-white shirt with an open collar, wearing glasses and sporting his trademark, unshaven look, the Iranian president also drifted from professor-like to cleric-like.
The solution to the world’s problems, including war, is religion, he said. Sounding not unlike Rev. Pat Robertson, Ahmadinejad said: “When religious values are removed from society, there is no hindrance for war. We must promote morality, ethics, and religious values.” In case anyone was wondering what he meant by “religious values,” the fundamentalist Shia politician said explicitly that he is talking about a return to the prophets. “We have to go back to the methods of the divine prophets,” he declared, who were “sent by God to guide people.” He expressed regret that for the past several decades many people have implied that adherence to fundamentalist religious beliefs is “equivalent to backwardness.”
In response to the questions, Ahmadinejad happily endorsed America’s invasion of Iraq. “Finally, [US leaders] were able to make a good decision for once,” he said, referring to the 2003 war. But now, he said, America has overstayed its welcome, in an effort to dominate the Persian Gulf and secure access to oil. Having eliminated Iran’s enemy, Saddam Hussein, it’s time for the United States to get out. “We have friendly ties with both the government and the people of Iraq,” he declared. “The best help the United States can provide to people in the region is to withdraw troops from the region. Leave the region alone!”
Joe Volk of Friends Committee on National Legislation asked Ahmadinejad about the 2003 back-channel offer from then-President Khatami’s government to the United States to settle all outstanding issues in US-Iran relations in a Grand Bargain that would cover nukes, Israel, Iraq, terrorism, etc. In response, Ahmadinejad said that the main problem was that there was no response from the United States. “When the back channel became front channel, everything went awry,” he said. Rather than comment further on Khatami’s offer, he talked about his letter to George W. Bush, a rambling, religion-infused epistle that he called “an historical opportunity.” It wasn’t — but Khatami’s was. “There’s no need to go back channel,” said Ahmadinejad yesterday.