President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York City this week to deliver his annual address before the United Nations General Assembly, and as per usual he granted an impressive number of meetings and interviews with leading journalists, scholars, and experts.
By all accounts, President Ahmadinejad thrives in just such a setting, surrounded by a hostile audience looking to catch him in a "gotcha" moment. [Even Fareed Zakaria – easily one of the sharpest minds around – tried to paint Ahmadinejad into a logical corner, only to receive a razor-sharp retort that turned the question back onto the US.] Thus it is a paradox to actually meet the man who embodies so much that Americans find disagreeable about Iran: you want to confront him over the error of his ways, and yet he comes out of every sparring match unscathed.
Truly, the only way to win this game is not to play.
This was at the forefront of my mind when I had the opportunity to meet with Ahmadinejad on Thursday night in New York. [The meeting was graciously arranged by Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, who are teaching this year at Yale.] Our group of 15 students gathered in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan, surrounded by Secret Service agents who on some level surely resented their assignment to protect one of the most hated men in the world. We were greeted by Seyed Vahid Karimi, Second Counselor from Iran's Permanent Mission to the UN, who arranged the meeting on our behalf. [Interestingly, Mr. Karimi also noted that he is empowered to authorize academic exchanges between American and Iranian university students on the principle of reciprocity – Americans pay for their airfare and are hosted in Iran, on the agreement that Iranian students pay for their airfare and be accommodated in the US. This notion of reciprocity was a recurring theme throughout the night.]
After a predictable delay, our group was ushered into the meeting room (see photos here) where we were greeted by Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, Senior Advisor to the President and a sort of "Karl Rove of Iran." Hashemi is a lifelong friend of the President's, and he spent most of his time extoling Ahmadinejad's personal and educational virtues. He was joined by Prof. Hamid Mowlana of American University, also a special advisor to the President.
At 10:15, President Ahmadinejad entered along with his numerous bodyguards – both American and Iranian – a cadre of photographers, and others. He looked tired after what surely was a long couple of days, and actually seemed to have put on some weight. I waited for his characteristic smile, but it never really appeared.
The conversation was predictable and not entirely noteworthy. Most of our questions had to do with lessons he may have learned or things he might wish to have done differently. He most likely could have sleepwalked through this meeting and done just fine. But I was struck by a few of his remarks that came off as pretty condescending – contradicting his humble roots and "man of the people" persona. It may be that, after running circles around all the leading scholars in the US, a group of grad students would be nothing to worry about, but it was indicative of how Ahmadinejad the man has changed over his five years in office. His default position is no longer that of the downtrodden outsider, always the righteous one in a world full of injustices. Surely the trappings of his office – among them wielding the cudgel of state power against protestors last year — have taken their toll.
Perhaps that is why things have gotten tougher for Iran in recent months – the notion of being constantly victimized by imperialist powers is a source of strength for the Islamic Republic. And yet, it has become much harder for Iran to paint Barack Hussein Obama as a villain intent on depriving them of their rights, notwithstanding much of the rhetoric coming out of Washington.
Throughout most of the night, Ahmadinejad gave long and winding answers in the way politicians do that leaves you struggling to remember what the question actually was in the first place. Iran's foreign policy is driven by principles of justice, he said, and that is why his public statements seem inflammatory. "If someone is oppressing another, or if someone is murdering another, is it not your obligation to scream about it?" he said. It is only right to condemn injustice wherever one sees it, he said, and thus he will continue to do so.
And the Iranian people support him, he said,"75-95 percent" of Iranians support his foreign policy, citing a University of Maryland poll from just after the election last year.
In the end, his message to us and to America was a fascinating mix of righteousness and defiance. Principles of justice and respect are to him an end unto themselves, and power politics be damned. The real tragedy, in his eyes, is that people don't see things the way he sees them. Iran isn't so bad, he says, and the world's misunderstanding of him and his country are simply a result of deliberate campaigns of misinformation and lying to cause conflict.
The Ahmadinejad of 2010 is at once wholly earnest and also a bit arrogant. He knows he can justify all of his actions with cunning logic, and simultaneously thinks he doesn't need to because he is entirely in the right. And with full confidence that he is doing God's work on Earth, he will not be swayed. "To delay talking with Iran will have no impact," he says. "I will keep doing what I am doing because my people support me in it."
For me, this earnestness underscored just how far apart Obama and Ahmadinejad really are. As he frequently does, Obama told BBC Persian this morning that he has offered Iran's leaders a choice to "come clean," admit they were wrong, and change their behavior. But that type of rhetoric is as unlikely to work as "carrots and sticks" before it. It's like telling a deeply religious person to simply admit that they worship a false god; their belief just won't allow them to do it.
Better to offer a face-saving way out for Iran which is compatible with these fundamental principles of Iranian foreign policy. But of course, that's nearly impossible within the US domestic political climate as long as Ahmadinejad spews hateful rhetoric and 9/11 conspiracies.
And the paradox continues…