Last Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at the United Nations, accusing the United States of secretly perpetrating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, prompting American and European delegates to walk out. Hours later, Ahmadinejad sat down for an hour-long chat with 13 Yale students.
The special visit was arranged by Hillary Mann Leverett for her graduate seminar "U.S.-Iranian Diplomacy." At the hotel where the Iranian delegation was staying, students questioned and talked with Ahmadinejad, his senior policy advisor and his chief advisor for international affairs. Leverett, a senior fellow at Yale's newly created Jackson Institute, is a proponent of engaging with Iran rather than imposing sanctions, and she said she tries to convey her overall approach to U.S.-Iranian relations to students in her seminar. She has drawn much attention — and criticism — for her views, which do not align with the conventional thinking in Washington.
While the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence listed Yale as one of 60 subversive organizations in January, Leverett said being blacklisted did not pose a problem when arranging the meeting with Yale students. She said Yale's ties to various human rights organizations that criticize the regime likely landed the University on the list, which she said was largely meant to make a statement that Iran does not approve of programs that challenge the government in Tehran. Leverett said she arranged the meeting by contacting someone in the Iranian delegation, as students in her seminar had asked whether they could meet with Ahmadinejad while he was in New York.
Leverett said she thinks students took away from the meeting in New York that Ahmadinejad is "not a crazy, irrational leader," and whether students agree with him or not, he has a strategy for Iran. She added that she also hopes students understand "that it will take a lot more from the U.S. if we want to have a real policy of engagement."
Ahmadinejad last spoke with an audience of about 100 college students — including 17 Yalies — following a talk at the United Nations in September 2009. He also gave a speech at Columbia University in September 2007, drawing a media firestorm and various protests.
In the meeting, students and Ahmadinejad discussed the use of rhetoric, which he said was central to foreign policy and communication, said Suchitra Vijayan GRD '12, a member of the class. Vijayan said she appreciated the opportunity to have an intimate talk with the man who has caused so much international uproar. While she said she recognized the role of rhetoric in international relations, she added that it's scary "when politicians keep repeating things until they believe it themselves."
Ahmadinejad also spoke about his vision for an approach to international relations governed by justice and righteousness, said Osman Haneef GRD '11, another member of the class.
"In some sense, justice in the international system sounds great, but not the kind of justice he is looking for," he said.
Nonetheless, Haneef said it is important to understand that Ahmadinejad himself might believe his rule is based on justice and operates from this belief. Haneef also said the meeting with Ahmadinejad showed him that "there's a calculating politician at work."
During the meeting, Ahmadinejad said he would not discuss the attacks of Sept. 11, and he declined to answer a question about the biggest regret from his presidency, Haneef said. One student in the class decided not to come to the meeting since she felt the meeting would only present propaganda for Iran and that attending would validate the regime, he said.
Sharif Vakili '13, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Iran and is not in Leverett's class, said he opposed the idea of meeting with Ahmadinejad simply to understand his perspectives because it lends Ahmadinejad undeserved legitimacy.
"For somebody to advocate a policy of engagement and show Ahmadinejad as a person and wash the blood of his hands is despicable and shameful," Vakili said of Leverett's approach to U.S.-Iran relations.
Ahmadinejad was elected to a second term last summer amid violent protests and international suspicion of voter fraud.
Vakili is not the only person who is critical of Leverett's approach, which she shares with her husband, Flynt Leverett, who is also a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute and works for the New Amercia Foundation, a think tank based in Washington D.C. Hillary Mann Leverett has held various positions related to Middle East policies in the State Department and National Security Council. While serving as part of the U.S. envoy to the UN in early 2001, she was authorized to work with Iranians on cooperating to deal with al Qaeda. The Leveretts received heavy criticism following their op/ed titled "Ahmadinejad won. Get over it" in Politico, which argued that Ahmadinejad won the 2009 elections fairly.
Jim Levinsohn, director of the Jackson Institute, said the Institute's main aim in hiring fellows is to expose students to a wide range of views.
"Are we looking for controversial individuals? No," he said. "We are looking for really interesting people who can speak to the issues of the day."
Leverett said Iran is crucial to all of America's foreign policy goals, adding that the U.S. can only solve its issues in the Middle East through better relations with Iran. She said she wants to reverse what she has termed the "dysfunctional policies" that the U.S. has espoused toward Iran, such as economic sanctions. While the U.S. has been willing to improve diplomatic relations with Iran, it has also maintained economic sanctions on Iran, which Leverett said are an impediment to better relations.
"We don't have the luxury to pick the governments, to pick our enemies, and then to negotiate with them," Leverett said, explaining why she supports trying to work with the current regime.
While Leverett and her husband have been published in a variety of major news outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, has been outspoken in writing pieces critical of Leverett's views on Iran, calling her an "Iran Apologist." The Leveretts' views have also been "very unpopular in scholarly circles," said Patrick Disney GRD '12, who is in Leverett's seminar, though he added that he thinks their views have been proven right recently.
In the spring semester, Leverett will teach an undergraduate course titled "The United States and the Middle East."