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."
After the question period, Ahmadinejad thanked his hosts for organizing such a "unique meeting between people who seek peace," and set off on a rather philosophical soliloquy on the root causes of war and violent conflict ("selfishness" and "expansionism"). He also shared details of Iran's painful experience during the Iran-Iraq war, drawing attention to the American government's military support of "professional criminal" Saddam Hussein during the eight-year conflict. The president then spent a fair amount of time discussing the importance of elevating morality, faith and religion in politics--issues that didn't appear to excite the crowd, which listened politely via simultaneous translation over headphones.
Afterwards the conversation turned to specifics, and elicited a few laughs. When addressing the issue of the condition of women in Iran, Ahmadinejad suggested that the US Department of the Treasury follow Iran's example by hiring more women, citing the example of the Iranian Central Bank and its large proportion of female employees. "I think if the US wants to fix the financial crisis," suggested Ahmadinejad with a smile, "it should let the women lead."
On the ever-present nuclear issue, the president questioned why the United States, the United Kingdom and France were so happy to support Iran's nuclear policy during the time of the Shah. "When there were no elections in our country, they wanted us to be a nuclear power. As soon as we started having elections, they opposed us," said the president. Ahmadinejad drew applause when he continued, "The truth is we think the time of the atomic bomb has come to an end, we've passed that time. We have no interest in the bomb. If the US government was concerned about nuclear weapons in the Middle East, they would disarm Israel."
Ahmadinejad's pledge to "prepare the conditions for more trips and exchanges," was also met with an ovation, but not before reminding his audience that in the realm of international relations, reciprocity is the rule. "I hope you will also follow up with your own government, so that we too can visit your country and exchange experiences."
Before the president was hustled out of the room to head off to another function, Mark Johnson, executive director of FOR, presented him with a plaque bearing a quote from the Koran, giving his own take on the English interpretation as, "The best way to start and end each day is to commit oneself to peace and nonviolence."
While many members of the audience crowded around Ahmadinejad and his entourage as they left the room, Jackie Cabasso, director of the Western States Legal Foundation and a steering committee member of United for Peace and Justice, suggested that cautious optimism is still the best approach the peace movement should take after their audience with the president.
"We need to remember this was still a fairly imbalanced conversation, with a government on one side and civil society on the other. Our job, after all, is to challenge governments."