White House Does Not Meet with Iran President Ahmadinejad during UN General Assembly Meeting, But a Small Group of American Citizens Does – Part I of III
By Ed Hale
As United States 2008 presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obamabickered over how they would “handle the Iran threat” in their first debate on Friday night, citing erroneous facts and competing with one another on who would hold out the longest from engaging in diplomatic talks with Iran, a small group of one-hundred and fifty American citizens representing fifty of the country’s most prominent peace and human rights groups were busy talking to the world’s media about the two-hour private meeting they held with the Iranian President two days prior.
The meeting, which was not revealed to the media until the next day to assure the safety and security for those in attendance, took place on Wednesday September 24 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City during the 63rd annual United Nations General Assembly Meeting. The goal of the meeting was “to introduce President Ahmadinejad to the peace community in the United States and to illustrate how this sector of civil society works to oppose war and the use of non-violence to resolve differences,” said the meeting’s facilitator, Mark Johnson, Executive Director of the global Fellowship of Reconciliation, the world’s oldest peace organization.
In an exhilarating live experiment in civilian diplomacy in action, the ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel was transformed into a veritable who’s who of some of the most outspoken and prominent members of America’s peace, anti-war, and human rights organizations, including Medea Benjamin of A Global Exchange, Jodie Evans of Code Pink and Women for Peace, Brian Becker of the ANSWER Coalition, yours truly representing PeaceWithIran.com, and Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice. There were also representatives from Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Mennonites, the Lutheran Peace Fellowship, American Friends Committee on National Legislation, and the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, among many others. American citizens flew in from almost all fifty states to hold the private meeting with President Ahmadinejad in an effort to begin the process of what many consider long overdue open dialogues with Iran regarding how our two nations can work together to secure more peaceful relations with one another.
The issues raised during the two-hour plus talk, many considered vital for the future security of both the United States and Iranian citizenry, revolved around how the countries can begin putting aside their mutual distrust of one another in order to move forward in peaceful negotiations; both the US and the Iranian government’s recent crackdown on human rights, freedom of assembly, and dissidents; the current US occupation of Iraq; Iran’s controversially viewed policy toward Israel; their treatment of women and other minorities; the difficulty on both sides of obtaining visas to visit either country. Of course the big issue of the moment, will Iran accept a compromise on its nuclear fuel enrichment program, was also addressed.
Ahmadinejad was joined by his Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, and Iran UN Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee. After already participating in two full days of talks with leaders from all over the globe, the Iranian President seemed tired, but he spoke eloquently, near poetically, and many of the points he made and the answers he gave to our questions were illuminating and insightful. In response to Iran’s nuclear energy program, a subject that the United States government continues to demonize in unsubstantiated propaganda to the American media though it has the support of one-hundred and eighteen other UN nation-states around the planet, Ahmadinejad reasserted for the umpteenth time that Iran has allowed more IAEA inspections of their nuclear facilities than any other country in the world to date, and that they discontinued pursuing nuclear weapons in 2005. A fact that has been confirmed and reconfirmed by all thirteen US Intelligence Agencies including the NSA, the FBI, and the CIA countless times over the last three years.
Why the White House persists in attempting to publicly frame Iran’s nuclear energy program as “a threat to American security” remains a mystery. As does why the US government continues to refuse to speak with or enter into diplomatic talks with Iran while other countries such as Iraq, Japan, Italy, China, Pakistan, and Russia are now jumping at it. Bear in mind that Iran currently sits on the second largest oil deposit on the planet. He told us that US President George W. Bush missed a historic opportunity when he didn’t respond to the Iran President’s 2006 letter inviting him to talk, an opportunity that could have begun a reconciliation of the two countries 28 year cold war of silence. As an American citizen I couldn’t help but feel a sense of bitterness and regret — as if we were indeed a winning team but could still lose the game because we simply suffer from having a bad captain.
Ahmadinejad also commented about how the United States, the UK, France and Canada supported, cooperated with, and even gave nuclear technology information to the pre-1979 regime ruled by the US-installed dictator, the Shah of Iran but now “When there were no elections in Iran, they wanted us to be a nuclear power. As soon as there were elections, they didn’t want us to be a nuclear power.” The room roared with laughter at the obvious irony. As a passionately patriotic American â€“ granted, more of the ideals we talk rather than the missteps our government often walks, especially with our foreign policy over the last fifty years â€“ I felt proud knowing that this might be the first time an Iranian government leader was in a room with living breathing American’s who actually understood and fought for America’s promise and potential of real democracy and liberty for all, rather than feeling bullied, threatened, and manipulated as many smaller countries feel in their dealings with the United States government today.
I was reminded of the shock I felt when I first learned just a few short months ago that in 1950 Iran had their first democratic revolution and in 1953 the CIA and the UK, under Operation Ajax, orchestrated a coup d’etat and ousted Iran’s new democratically elected Prime Minister Mosaddeq sending him into exile and installed a puppet regime that they could control easily in the form of The Shah so both countries could reap giant profits from Iran’s enormous oil supply while that country’s people struggled in poverty and fell behind the rest of the world in technology, social services, and infrastructure for thirty more years. I also contemplated how as children we are taught to honor, respect, and celebrate our own American Revolution while at the same time being advised that we should disrespect, fear, and dishonor the Iranian people’s own Democratic Revolution.
But as important as that little bit of history is for all Americans to have knowledge of, that’s in the past and here we were, twenty-eight years later, American citizens no longer able to bear the archaic bullheaded imperialist system that refuses to practice in real life what it preaches to its children in school, taking matters into our own hands and sitting down in the first ever diplomatic talks with the relatively new democratically-elected Iranian government to help begin to build a bridge of shared values and mutual agreements: mainly, that “œwe must work together to form a wave of citizens who are dedicated to world peace for all citizens of the world and of all nations.”
Echoing what we heard countless times by many leading government officials when I visited Iran in March of this year, Ahmadinejad told us that Iran is politically and religiously opposed to nuclear weapons, adding: “The time for nuclear weapons has come to an end. Those who want to build a new generation of nuclear bombs are politically backward, period. Those days are over.â€ Again the room erupted into applause. â€œDid nuclear weapons help the United States in their Vietnam War? Did they help the former Soviet Union in the Cold War? Are they helping your country in the Iraq War?” Silence in the room. Perhaps it was the fact that Ahmadinejad was fasting for weeks straight due to the Muslim holiday of Ramadan. Perhaps he has just matured over the years. But his mannerisms were cool, his demeanor was calm, and the tone of his answers poetic and philosophical. He then posed the question â€œDoesnâ€™t it seem odd that we are being economically sanctioned, our people strangled literally to death, and at the same time publicly threatened and attacked almost daily for attempting to harness nuclear energy for our rapidly growing economy with no intention of building nuclear weapons, by the United States who has over 10,000 functional nuclear warheads aimed at half the world? Doesnâ€™t this seem odd and illogical?â€ Again, more applause.
I was speechless. Perhaps this was a first for me too. The first time that I had heard a high ranking government official, a head of State no less, speaking not only insightfully with moral and ethical undertones, but speaking truths that many of us think to ourselves privately but are afraid to utter aloud for fear of being labeled â€œunpatrioticâ€ or â€œtreasonous.â€ Having grown up in America in the latter half of the 20th century I was jaded from one too many politico speeches filled with nothing but empty rhetoric and flip flopping. But Iran is in a different position now than theyâ€™ve been in thousandâ€™s of years and different than even we American citizens are. They are quickly gaining allies and support and mammoth deals with countries all over the world. They do not share the same fears that even we here at home face of being attacked for speaking their truth. They are a rapidly growing new country of strong proud people with a seven-thousand year long history, a sovereign nation who are free to say what they wish, economic sanctions and near-constant threats of military strikes be damned. All I could do was transcribe the contents of the meeting as quickly as my illegible handwriting would allow. Something told me that what I was witnessing and listening to was important to share with as many people as I could over the coming weeks and months.
This is not to say that those of us in attendance were able to agree with everything that the conservative Muslim President said during our meeting. There was plenty to take umbrage with and in fact just downright vehemently disagree with. This I will cover in Part II, along with a summary of the dialogue surrounding some of the other issues mentioned earlier in this article. But in the name of peace, which was the reason for the meeting in the first place, perhaps it best to end Part I with Ahmadinejadâ€™s closing remarks to illustrate why many left that room that night inspired by the potential hinted at that there is power in our civil society and in non-violent civilian diplomacy to effect change in the world and to lift up democratic societies despite challenges and obstacles.
â€œMy friends we need to create a wave of all world citizens of all backgrounds and all walks of life to create more peace in the world. We need to practice our values of our various religions and gather ourselves together to work at the pace of light itself to keep up with the pace of the world. Carrying out this mission has certain requirements based on justice and respect for all nations. If we don’t like something for ourselves, then we should not want it for other nations. Yes? What I am saying here is not complicated. These are clear-cut ideas that we need simply to put into practice.â€
It is too bad that neither John McCain nor Barack Obama could have been in attendance at this historic meeting. Perhaps the contents of their debate on Friday regarding the country of Iran would have appeared more well informed and enlightened. (Both candidates mistakenly referred to Iranâ€™s Revolutionary Guard as â€œthe Republican Guardâ€) If the United States is going to pull out of the numerous crises both here and abroad that it currently faces, it is going to take real change on many levels â€“ the kind of change hyped and promoted by at least one of this election yearâ€™s presidential candidates. And one of those changes absolutely essential to our survival, let alone our thriving in the 21st century is going to be a more open door diplomatic policy towards communication with other countries that we may not see eye to eye on in all matters. But we have to start somewhere for real reconciliation to start taking place.
September 27th, 2008