One day after announcing to the United Nations General Assembly that “the American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road,” and holding meetings with the presidents of Iraq, Kenya and Pakistan, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also carved out time to talk with the American peace movement.
More than 150 activists and individuals from almost fifty different organizations within the US peace and antiwar community came out to the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Wednesday evening for what was billed as a unique opportunity to share “concerns, worries and hopes for promoting a direct and open dialogue between the governments and peoples of the United States and Iran.” For a little under two hours, President Ahmadinejad, joined by Iran’s Ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, and a number of Iranian cabinet members and parliamentarians, fielded questions from representatives of United for Peace and Justice, Code Pink, Women Against War, Just Foreign Policy, Pax Christi and a number of other peace groups. Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), an interfaith US peace group, convened the unprecedented discussion.
Among the many issues raised in pre-selected questions were: how to ensure the safety of Iranian dissidents who meet with visiting Americans; women’s rights; the state’s decision to pursue nuclear energy in lieu of solar or wind energy; the possibility of war between the US and Iran; and, of course, provocative remarks recently made by the Ayotollah Khomeini about Israel. Some questions were more pragmatic, like asking for advice on how to navigate Iran’s opaque and unpredictable visa process.
“President Ahmadinejad, my organization has been sending delegations to Iran for years, but the process is cumbersome, and we never know who is going to get a visa, and often not until the last minute,” remarked Medea Benjamin of Global Exchange and Code Pink. “I myself would love to visit Iran, but I can’t get a visa!”
The visa issue was actually the spark that led to this gathering in the first place. Fellowship of Reconciliation has been running “Grassroots Civilian Diplomacy” delegations to Iran since 2005. But they found themselves in the lurch this August when news came down that none of the travel visas had been approved for members of their latest delegation–on the same day of their expected departure. The Iranian mission gave no explanation or rationale at the time, and $25,000 in non-recoupable travel costs were lost. When Leila Zand, director of the Iran Program at FOR, met with Iranian officials last month in the hopes of reversing the decision, she was told there was not much they could do. Instead they invited her to put together a meeting of peace activists to discuss the issue directly with the Iranian president, who would be passing through New York shortly for the annual meeting of the United Nations
“Before I came to the United States I couldn’t imagine a peace movement here in America–these were the people who killed Martin Luther King!” says Leila, who left Tehran in 2000. “That’s why I think it’s so important to send Americans to Iran, to see the reality of the country, to promote dialogue, and to meet people in the peace movement there. And of course as an Iranian American I want to do everything I can to avoid a conflict.”