During Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the United States two weeks ago I was fortunate enough to join a community of about 100 citizen-diplomats from across the United States to meet with him and discuss issues that face the global community today.  For two hours in a private setting and without the media present we were able to ask the president candid questions about human rights abuses in Iran, nuclear proliferation, cultural exchanges, the role of youth, Iran’s policy with Israel, the environment, and relations with the United States.  On behalf of Americans across the country who thirst for a thawing of relations between the two communities we were very respectful and welcomed the opportunity to have an open dialogue with Ahmadinejad.  We were particularly eager to get firsthand insight on his perspectives and learn our commonalities so we can take the next proactive steps in creating a stable relationship with our Iranian counterparts.  Most of Ahmadinejad’s comments were consistent with what was said on Larry King Live and at the UN General Assembly earlier in the week, so I would like to share my take on the meeting and aim to clarify some discrepancies portrayed in the media.
The issue of foreign policy, including nuclear energy, Iran-Israel relations, Iran-US relations, were unabashedly discussed with Ahmadinejad.  When asked whether he was worried about an American or Israeli strike on Iran, he laughed saying that it is ridiculous to even think of such a scenario because of the lack of capacity each country has to go to war and the detrimental effects it could have not only on Iran but in the region.  He also mentioned that Iran didn’t have the capability to take the offensive either leaving options of war off the table for all parties.  He proclaimed that now is the time for “reciprocity and fairness” and continues to welcome dialogue with the U.S. despite U.S. resistance.  Perhaps the biggest frustration we shared with Ahmadinejad is how we felt about current U.S. policy to not engage in dialogue with Iran.  There are various strategic interests each country holds that can be mutually beneficial and last-resort bargaining chips, but the U.S. has yet to realize the full potential for this to happen without dialogue taking place.  The rumors of opening a post in Tehran this past summer coupled with U.S. President George W. Bush’s decision to send a U.S. official to a meeting with Iranian officials gave short-lived hope that the lines of communication would reopen, but President Bush sidelined those hopes this past week by taking the options off the table and leaving it for the next U.S. president to address; this is another decision that will prolong this turbulent relationship.
Focusing on Iran’s general policy, Ahmadinjad’s was adamant about sharing his thoughts on war.  He spoke for 30 minutes (1/4 of our meeting time) about the drawbacks of war and how all people of all faiths should prevent war.  He even refrained from using war-mongering language/rhetoric, which is commonly distorted on Western media outlets.  He even stressed that he does not have anything against Jews and bragged how there are Jewish communities in Iran and a Jew in the Iranian parliament.  He wanted democracy to decide the fate of the Arab-Israeli conflict and upholds the statement that Iran is not proliferating nuclear weapons because that would otherwise lend itself to destruction and goes against the beliefs of Islam, Iran’s official religion.  In all, he would follow the lead of the U.S. and international organizations if the U.S. cooperated fairly – terms that at least sound ripe for opening lines of communication not only with the U.S. but perhaps also with the Jewish community in Israel (a distinction he made against Zionists or, as he referred to as, “people of no faith”).
The most disappointing part of the meeting was on the issue of human rights in Iran. President Ahmadinejad disregarded the human rights abuses in Iran that we directly addressed to him.  We explicitly asked him about the lack of human rights for women and homosexuals and the limits on freedom of expression and of the press.  He responded that those weren’t problems in Iran.   These are issues we must continue to address in cooperation with Iranian NGOs and Iranian citizens, to say the least.
As mentioned earlier, there were several other topics discussed in more detail including a conversation by Ahmadinejad on making Iran more energy efficient and environmentally friendly and involving more youth in cultural exchanges and activism in Iran, but my biggest take-away from the meeting is the repeated interest Ahmadinejad has in meeting with President Bush and other U.S. officials to find a solution to their divorced relationship.  With explicit interest for dialogue by Ahmadinejad, and with 82% of the American people and 57% of Iranians in favor of direct, bi-lateral talks, I think it is clear that the U.S. government should take the next step in making this dialogue happen .   As a member of the NGO community who has been actively engaged in bridging the two civil society communities, there must be better formal relations between the two countries to allow for further development and a sustained relationship.