Dinner with President Ahmadinejad of Iran
William O. Beeman
I was at an intimate dinner with Iranian President Ahmadinejad (and 57 others!) on Wednesday, September 22 at the Warwick Hotel in New York. We had an excellent Persian meal without the President being present (perhaps to meet the objection some had about "breaking bread" with him). Dinner was followed by a question and answer session in an adjacent room. The guests were largely public policy specialists, ex-ambassadors and a smattering of academics, a few of whom, including me, who spoke Persian because they were Iranian-American or because they had bothered to learn the language.
President Ahmandinejad is a fiery and controversial speaker in public, but in private he is a polished and polite conversationalist, and a highly skillful rhetorician. He manages to combine an erudite vocabulary with an informal, highly conversational verbal style. He answers questions even in a forum like this as if he was having an intimate chat with his interlocutors. This doesn't mean that he is any less controversial. He has pat answers for nearly every predictable question. Asked about executions in Iran, he points to the incipient execution of a woman in Virginia (which took place late last week after the dinner). When asked about nuclear weapons he says, "Announcing that you want nuclear weapons is to announce that you are a murderer. What other purpose is there for having nuclear weapons than to murder people." Asked about the judiciary, he points out that it isn't under his control and that in the U.S. and other nations, presidents often disagree with the decisions of the independent courts.
Ultimately however, I was disappointed with the event. President Ahmadinejad extended the time originally allocated for questions and answers by 45 minutes. His patience with the assembled body was notable. However, the extra time was wasted. With few exceptions the vast bulk of the questions were really variations of each other--and all about Iran's nuclear program. This was disappointing because President Ahmadinejad had been answering questions from the press almost exclusively about this issue for two days. A simple Google search would have yielded up virtually every single answer he gave to those assembled at dinner. The golden opportunity to engage President Ahmadinejad on a wider variety of issues--human rights, Afghanistan, Iraq, the environment, drug trafficking, trade policy, relations with India and China, and on and on was totally wasted in the obsession with the nuclear issue. At times I got the feeling that the assembled academics, ambassadors and policy specialists were trying to play "gotcha journalism" as if asking the same question over and over again in slightly different language was going to trap the President in to making some kind of verbal mistake. His line on the nuclear issue is by now finely honed, and he is quite practiced under fire. Any hope that he would break rank on this topic should have been dispelled in the first ten minutes. One of my companions snuck out early, saying "My God, this repetition is like water torture." I don't want to be mean spirited, but this was a sad showing from some of the finest minds in the country who somehow couldn't break away from this one-note theme. But the food was superb.