Last week, Hillary Mann Leverett arranged a private meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for students in her graduate seminar "U.S.-Iranian Diplomacy." According to News articles about the event, Leverett believes that Ahmadinejad won the 2009 Iranian elections fairly and advocates an approach to U.S.-Iranian relations through a policy of engagement rather than pressure. As an Iranian American who has had family members and friends unjustly executed, tortured and imprisoned in Iran, this was extraordinarily distressing.
There seemed to be an agenda for the class: portraying the mullahs running Iran as legitimate, respectable government leaders that represent the Iranian people. Leverett states that the meeting the students had with Ahmadinejad showed that "he was probably not the stereotype of a crazy irrational figure … He has a strategy for Iran."
But the only "strategy for Iran" Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the other mullahs have is continuing martial law, executing and torturing the Iranian people, funding and supplying Hamas, Hezbollah and Iraqi insurgents, and continuing controversial rhetoric.
To sugarcoat Ahmadinejad during an interview with him is despicable because it completely misrepresents who this sick man is and it gives into his façade. This is a man who told the world that the Iranian regime had no nuclear ambitions while covertly constructing nuclear reactors. This is a man who denies that stoning or any unjust executions exists in Iran. This is man who claims Iran has the best and fairest democracy in the world and that the United States government wished it could emulate it. This is a man, who, according to Der Spiegel, personally executed 1,000 Iranians when he was in the Revolutionary Guard, the same Revolutionary Guard that still imprisons dissidents, enforces martial law and controls 75 percent of all Iranian business affairs.
So to portray Ahmadinejad on a personal level and disregard his background is to wipe the blood off his hands.
I am not against a group of Yalies meeting with the Iranian President, but it should be sincere and unstaged. Tragically, the meeting that occurred last Thursday was anything but. Instead of talking to Ahmadinejad about inane topics, these students should have gone to him with documents, photos, videos or any other piece of the bountiful evidence of the human rights violations committed in Iran and demand that he explain himself. This act of appeasement is unfortunately only one of many — there have been few interviews by the media in which members of the Iranian Regime have been confronted with evidence and tough question. Of course, it should be recognized that Ahmadinejad probably would not allow such an interview, but his silence would itself make a statement.
Each year, when an Iranian President comes to the United Nations and Yalies meet him (this is not the first time such an interview has taken place), there are thousands outside the U.N. protesting the Iranian regime. Since early childhood, I have attended these protests with my family and have met many courageous people, as each year my family hosts those who have come from all over the world to voice their beliefs.
I have heard their stories. Two years ago, for instance, we hosted a couple that used to live in Iran with their two sons and two daughters. The father was a prominent filmmaker, who was making a controversial film when the government told him to stop. He refused. Shortly thereafter, his son, a student at the University of Tehran went missing. When the father returned to his studio the next morning, he found his son hanging from the ceiling. Every media outlet reported that his son committed suicide. Outraged, the filmmaker's other son, became vocal; he too was arrested and executed. Ultimately, the family fled.
Behind every oppressed voice, there is a story that the international community needs to hear. To represent the Iranian regime in a positive light or to make statements like "Ahmadinejad won. Get over it," as Leverett did in an opinion piece last year is to insult the Iranian people who have courageously stood up for freedom in the face of oppression. The regime is breaking, and to rejuvenate it as was done during the '90s is to invigorate an oppression of 72 million Iranian people.
The rhetoric Leverett used is neither new nor surprising. In fact, it is remarkably similar to the propaganda of many Iranian lobbyists and media outlets.
Therefore, my plea to Leverett and to others is to speak to the Iranian families who have been victims of the oppressive regime, learn their backgrounds, and understand the circumstances that have driven them to fight for freedom at the cost of their lives.
I fundamentally believe that her class should continue to be taught so that Yalies can decide the truth for themselves. As someone who has been burdened by his Iranian heritage and been so exposed politically from a young age, I have witnessed how multifaceted the Iranian situation can be. To obtain any remote understanding of it, it is important to listen to every possible perspective of the situation. Who knows, maybe I'll take Professor Leverett's class one day.
Sharif Vakili is a sophomore in Silliman College.