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.
"We're ready to have positive dialogue" with the United States, he said, suggesting indirectly that he'd be receptive to Barack Obama's offer of diplomacy. But he seemed overconfident in regard to America's military threat to Iran: "The American government is no longer able to start another war for decades to come. This is good news for the rest of the world, believe me!" True enough, America is overstretched in its two ongoing wars, but his belief that Iran is therefore safe from a US attack seemed dangerously misguided to me. During my visit to Iran in March, many Iranian officials seemed to underestimate the potential for the United States, with its $600 billion Pentagon budget and vast Persian Gulf firepower, to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.
Perhaps Ahmadinejad's worst moments came in relation to human and women's rights. Everything is fine, he said. Repression of dissidents and youth. "It is not the case in Iran," he lied. "Young people are very active politically." (Astonishingly, as evidence of young people's involvement in politics, he cited the recruitment of Iranian young people to the paramilitary Basij militia. In 60,000 mosques acorss the country, he said, young men are attaching themselves to the Basij, which is an adjunct force to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In all, ten million have signed up, he said, though most estimates say that the Basij is about one million strong.)
On women, the Iranian president waxed poetic about the precious beauty of women, in a rambling, stream-of-consciousness description of what he said is the growing role of women in society. It's gone so far, he said, "To tell you the truth, women are about to replace myself." (As unlikely as it is for a woman to become president of Iran, real power rests with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a woman cannot become an ayatollah or, therefore, the Supreme Leader.) "In Iran, the way women are looked at is different than here. They enjoy more respect at all levels, and they work less .. A lot of times, we don't want women to do hard work. Cab drivers! I don't really like it for women. It's a tough job, really. ... Women are the reflection of sublime beauty. Women are the reflection of all that is beautiful in society."
He didn't give any hint of a diplomatic opening on the nuclear issue. He ridiculed the United States, the UK, France and Canada for cooperating with the pre-1979 regime of the Shah on nuclear technology, and he got off a zinger: "When there were no elections in Iran, they wanted us to be a nuclear power. As soon as there were elections, they didn't want us to be a nuclear power." He specifically said that Iran is opposed to nuclear weapons, adding: "The time for nuclear weapons has come to an end. Those who want to build a new generation of nuclear bombs are politically backward, period!" Of course, the idea that Iran would risk world isolation, sanctions, UN Security Council actions, and the threat of war in order to have a peaceful nuclear energy program seems quite ludicrous to me. Clearly, Ahmadinejad is one of those "politically backward" ones. He refused to say that Iran would welcome a deal of the sort proposed by Thomas Pickering, for international guarantees for a nuclear enrichment program for Iran. Overall, no daylight there.