September 28, 2012
Dinner with Ahmadinejad
We could have been in Tehran.
Men in dark suits and earpieces stood outside the doors of the hotel, keeping watch for protesters and anybody else who didn’t belong. Inside, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepared to meet a group of university students.
Except this was New York City, and I was one of those students.
As a journalist and student, I was eager for my firsthand encounter with one of the world’s most polarizing figures. As a Jew and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I worried how I would get through the night without shouting, “You’re a damn liar!”
Upstairs, a buffet of Persian rice, kabobs and salads awaited. Sadly, no kosher option. After a little schmoozing, we were led into a ballroom where Iran's ambassador to the U.N., Mohammad Khazaee, prepped us for the encounter.
That platitude unnerved me only when Ahmadinejad was greeted with a standing ovation by these “future leaders” when he entered the room. Likewise, I cringed when students later addressed him as “Your Excellency” during the question-and-answer session. One even prefaced her remarks by saying it was “a pleasure” to be in his presence. That’s when I felt my dinner beginning to come back up.
“We believe all humans are seeking dignity,” Ahmadinejad said via the calm, disembodied voice of his translator on my headset. “The best way of bringing minds closer together is through dialogue. No one should seek to impose their views on others.”
Earlier in the day, Ahmadinejad had referred to the Jewish state as “a fake regime” and predicted that Israel would not be long for this world. But in this meeting, Ahmadinejad kept up an almost Pollyanna-ish demeanor as he sought to paint Iran as a symbol of peace and stability in the Middle East.
His saccharine words were bellied by his constant refusal even to acknowledge Israel by name.
U.S. support for the Shah and for Saddam Hussein during Iraq's war with Iran in the 1980s created “a negative mindset” toward the U.S. government among Iranians, he said.
It all sounded nice, even if had little to no relation to the truth. There was no mention of Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons pursuits, support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, sponsorship of terrorist attacks or violent suppression of domestic dissent.
I couldn’t figure out whether or not he actually believed his own words.
Western governments are unwilling to rein in the Zionists, he said, calling on the international community to "officially and severely" condemn threats against Iran, which is “committed to eradicating fundamental reasons that give rise to these tensions.”
As the meeting wrapped up, I was eager to get home. The next day was, after all, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Maybe part of me had hoped for a more Yom Kippur-like message, a plea for forgiveness, perhaps.