Hours after he spoke to the
United Nations, the Iranian president made this clear, unequivocal statement to
a group of us during a private meeting in New York. The Mennonite Central Committee
organized an extraordinary, private session for about 50 people to dialogue with
President Ahmadinejad about the escalating crisis between the
U.S. and Iran.
left the hour-long meeting convinced, as did many, if not all, of my colleagues,
that the Iranian leader is a deeply religious person who approaches the issue of
nuclear weapons from a moral perspective. The Iranian leader expressed great
interest in establishing a dialogue with the religious community in the
States, and he explained that he views Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam as three co-equal religions.
Of course, I
suspect that all of the people in this meeting had many areas where we probably
disagree with the policies of the Iranian government. For instance, FCNL is
concerned about political prisoners in Iran, religious tolerance, and
Iran's position on
Israel. We also were aware that the
Iranian president met with us as part of his effort to defuse the looming crisis
between the Iranian government and the international community over
Iran's nuclear energy
But I've been a lobbyist working for the abolition of nuclear
weapons for more than a decade, and I've talked about these issues with a lot of
people. Ahmadinejad impressed me as someone who had thought about these issues a
lot. He's a former engineer, who is thinking through the arguments from a number
of different perspectives.
For instance, although he starts any
discussion by saying that nuclear weapons are immoral, Ahmadinejad also reminded
us that the Soviet Union had thousands of
nuclear weapons, which didn't prevent their government from collapsing. He added
that, during Iran's war with
Iraq in the 1980s,
Iraq's alliance with a
country with nuclear weapons (presumably he was referring to the
States) didn't have any impact on the war. He
convinced me that Iran is not interested in developing
Iran is interested in developing
nuclear energy. As a former engineer, he believes that nuclear fuel is the
cleanest fuel there is and he explained that this energy source is critical for
the future development of his country. And Ahmadinejad bristles at suggestions
that the United
States or anyone else would try to dictate how
his country pursued its energy needs.
But how do we get beyond the
current impasse, we asked him? Ahmadinejad suggested that the UN's Committee on
Disarmament, based in Geneva, might be one forum where these
discussions should take place. He then offered a proposal: Iran will open all of its nuclear facilities to
inspections, if the United
States will also open its facilities to
inspections. Neither Iran nor
the U.S. have implemented the Additional
Protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that includes additional
inspections, although we at FCNL believe both countries should do so. He added
that the United
States should refrain from building so-called
second or third generation nuclear weapons.
Now, I'm not endorsing
Iran's proposals or even arguing this
is the only path to peace. And, in our meeting in New York on Wednesday,
the Iranian president made other comments that I found deeply troubling. In
particular, I was struck by his comments about the Holocaust. He did not deny
the Holocaust, but he still conveyed a view that the matter is debatable. In
these comments he sounded a lot like politicians in the U.S. Congress who deny
that global warming is a fact, even though there is a significant body of
evidence that cannot be denied.
But when he spoke about issues that I
cover, the nuclear weapons issues, what struck me is that the Iranian president
was offering a reasonable basis for real negotiations. Since Ahmadinejad took
office, Iran has been backing away from
permitting full inspections of its nuclear program. But I think this is a
bargaining stance to start negotiations. Iran wants to
have full rights for civilian nuclear energy, including nuclear enrichment.
Iranian leaders also want some kind of assurance that the United States
will not bomb their country.
The day I left Washington to go to New York for this meeting, I attended a
hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The contrast was striking.
Nicholas Burns, the number three official at the State Department, spent most of
that hearing lobing what I can only describe as rhetorical hand grenades at
Iran. In his first State of the Union
address, President Bush described Iran as part of the "axis of evil."
That's still the approach of some in the U.S. government.
But what is even more striking is the pride U.S. officials take in insisting they will not
even talk to Iran. Nicholas Burns, in his
testimony this week to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made a point of
saying he has never met with an Iranian government official. Now here is a man
who has been part of the U.S. foreign service for decades, and
he made a point of pride that he had never met with any Iranian official. If the
U.S. continues to insist that
no dialogue is possible with Iran, then war is the likely
War is not the answer.