Saturday, September 27, 2008

Meeting with President Ahmadinejad

On Wednesday evening, September 24, I was one of over one-hundred activists who met for two hours with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran. President Ahmadinejad was in the US for a General Assembly meeting at the United Nations. Leila Zand, an Iranian woman from the Capital District who is the Iran Program Director for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), organized the meeting. The next morning, anti-war group members who had attended Wednesday’s meeting met again to discuss how to organize against an attack on Iran.

I attended both meetings as a representative of Bethlehem Neighbors for Peace and of the Muslim Solidarity Committee. Also at the meeting was Priscilla Fairbank from Women Against War (WAW). Over 100 different anti-war organizations from across the country were represented, including, the Syracuse Peace Council, and Rochester Against War from upstate, NY.

After welcome addresses from FOR and the Iranian ambassador, eleven people, including Priscilla Fairbank of WAW, asked questions of the Iranian president.

President Ahmadinejad’s started his formal address by thanking those who were gathered for their work on behalf of peace. He observed that World War II took the lives of over 60,000,000 people, more than the number killed in all previous wars combined, and was then followed by additional wars in Korea, Vietnam, Granada, and elsewhere. He had determined, therefore, that it was not enough to fight against a single war; rather, the peace movement must address the causes of war in general and work towards ending all war.

He stated that, in his opinion, war has two major causes:

1. Greed, or the desire of one country to take the resources of another; and
2. Geographical expansion, or one country trying to take over the territory of another.

He said that the only war that modern Iran was involved in was the eight-year war with Iraq, which was started by the “professional criminal,” Saddam Hussein. Saddam, he said, started that war with the encouragement and support of the US. As a result, over 200,000 Iranians died, including many killed by chemical weapons supplied by the US.

President Ahmadinejad stated that the reason Iran is against war is because, in Iran, politics and religion are not separate. He said that all the great religions have a common moral code and that unless politics is based on a moral code, war will continue. He also said that Iran is against nuclear weapons and implied that nuclear weaponry violates the religious beliefs of Islam.

One of the questions asked of President Ahmadinejad involved the recent demonstration at the national political conventions and the number of arrests (over 800 were arrested in St. Paul including legal observers, medical helpers and reporters). The questioner asked about similar political repression in Iran. President Ahmadinejad replied that they have demonstrations in Iran, including two annual demonstrations that attract millions of people. He said political demonstrations are allowed in Iran. However, one Iranian women at the meeting the following morning stated that there have been non-government sanctioned demonstrations in Iran that have been broken up by authorities.

Another questioner asked about the role of women, youth, and gays in Iran. Ahmadinejad replied that Iranian youth are very involved in politics and that a national youth organization advises him. He said that people can vote in Iran at the age of 15.

President Ahmadinejad said that two of his vice-presidents are women and that women make up 70% of the university students and perhaps a majority of all professions. Women can work at all jobs , including taxi driving and truck driving. He noted, however, that he did not think it was a good thing for women to be taxi drivers and truck drivers, as he believes women should not do hard labor and represent beauty and the finer things in society. (I also noticed that all the dignitaries who came with him were men.)

He did not answer the question about gays although he did answer that question on Democracy Now the following morning. He stated that although he does not approve of homosexuality, gays are not discriminated against in Iran. What people do in their own homes is their own business, he said. Amy Goodman had a picture of two gays that she said were hanged in Iran. President Ahmadinejad responded that he did not believe that; people in Iran are only executed for murder or rape.

He was asked why Iran supports nuclear power instead of renewable energy. He said that he thought it was strange that the U.S., Britain, and other countries supported Iran’s nuclear power programs under the US supported dictatorship, but that once Iran had elections, these same countries no longer supported it. He said that they spend three times as much on renewable energy than they spend on nuclear power. He felt that both renewable and nuclear energy were necessary for Iran’s energy future.

Medea Benjamin of Code Pink asked why it is difficult for Americans to get visas to visit Iran. She said that they had sponsored tours of Iran but she herself had been denied a visa. President Ahmadinejad said that he did not know and instructed the Iranian ambassador to open up the process for Americans. He then told us that we should now go to our own government and ask why Iranians can’t get visas to come to the US.

President Ahmadinejad stated that the demise of the old Soviet Union started with their protracted war in Afghanistan. He believes that the US is going through a similar process. He said that the $700 billion bailout of US financial institutions could be better used by the poor around the world and that the $700 billion was more than the budgets of over 100 countries in the world. Because of the crisis, the US would not be able to have another war for perhaps a decade, he said. He also stated, “Iran will not seek war with anyone, ever.”

After meeting with Ahmadinejad, I had the opportunity to hear Bush’s televised address on the economic bailout. The contrast was clear: Bush spoke with the expressionless face of a psychopathic liar. Ahmadinejad spoke with expression and emotion, like a normal person. Although I disagree, at times strongly, with many of the points Ahmadinejad has made, I believe the U.S. campaign of vilification against the Iranian president is designed to build up a case for war against Iran.

The most important human right is the right to live. Any movement toward war by the U.S. against Iran would bring mass destruction and death. The role of the peace movement in the U.S. is to strongly oppose a war against Iran not criticize Iran, which will just add to the US villification of Iran and support the US war effort. As long as the US continues to threaten Iran, the Iranian people will band together to defend their country, and all their other progressive struggles in Iran will be postponed.

At the meeting the following morning, over 60 people representing a wide array of the national peace movement met at a church in the East Village. FOR has many ties to the religious peace movement ,and so a number of religious peace leaders were there along with most of the secular peace groups. Ahmadinejad’s comments about religion and politics became a topic of discussion at the meeting. Most people clearly disagreed with Ahmadinejad’s perspective, although some thought that his perspective comes from Iranian traditions where there is not a concept of separation of church and state.

One Iranian woman mentioned that she spoke to the Iranian ambassador during the meeting and he asked her if some of the people who attended the meeting would be arrested for attending. Perhaps this comment says a lot about the real political situation in Iran

There was discussion about legislative initiatives and about the importance of people to people contact between the two countries. There was not a lot of time for strategizing; however, FOR plans to keep us in contact with each other as a national network opposing an attack on Iran.

The meeting with President Ahmadinejad was filmed. FOR will let us know how we can get copies of the video.

On October 18, 2008 there will be a conference on Iran and strategies to end war in our area. Information can be found at the link below. Please join us to further discussion of avoiding war with Iran.

How to Prevent War on Iran and the Constitution

Joe Lombard