My Dinner With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

 “Eventually I thought to myself that the only way to make this evening bearable would be to find out as much as I could about the person I happened to be with. I always enjoy finding out about people. It relaxes me.” – Wallace Shawn in My Dinner with André (screenplay 1981).


This past Tuesday, I was invited to an unusual dinner. I joined a group of U.S progressives at a dinner and private meeting with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran. He was in New York for the meeting of United Nations General Assembly. This year, he also wanted to hear from social movement activists in the United States.

When the invitation to attend first arrived by e-mail, like many electronic messages I receive, I was unsure as to its authenticity. But a more formal paper invitation followed in the mail from the permanent mission of Iran at the United Nations. So I booked a flight to New York and prepared to see what would happen.

We gathered in a midtown Manhattan hotel, passed through the obligatory screening by New York City police officers, and went upstairs to a large dining room with a generous buffet supper. The meal included several salads, two varieties of rice, a breaded fish, two types of flavored chicken, a beef dish and several braised vegetables. Beverages included juices, soft drinks, coffee and tea. An additional table was covered with a variety of cut fruits and cheeses and a smaller platter of sweet pastries.

By this time, the crowd of invited guests had swelled well past the initially promised “couple dozen” to over four times that many – making it difficult to get close to the center of things – but everyone was friendly and accommodated to the tight quarters.

The guest list ranged from political figures like former Georgia Congressmember and 2008 independent presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney and former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark; to poet Amiri Baraka; the International Action Center’s Sarah Flounders; and Romana Africa of the MOVE organization.

After dinner, we moved into a room with a series of round tables, a large TV monitor and several TV cameras on tripods. Each round table had pens and notepads, bottled water, a dish of nuts, and a small plate of assorted delicious dried fruits. There was also a sheet of paper at each place stating the goals for the gathering, but no one seemed to read them. A long table was set-up at the front of the room for the President, several staffers and the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations. As they entered the room there was warm applause from the invited guests.

The audience was welcomed and the plan for the evening explained – first a series of representatives of various U.S. organizations would speak, then President Ahmadinejad would address the audience.

The first to address the Iranian President was Cynthia McKinney who spoke of the history of U.S. activists that had died for their commitment to peace, justice and civil rights (including Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and both John and Robert Kennedy). Ramsey Clark followed with reflections on the history of U.S. interventions in Iran from the overthrow of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 to our government’s support of the brutal Shah until his ouster in January of 1979. Sarah Flounders of the International Action Center spoke of the work of the peace movement in the United States and called for respectful dialogue in the US and international bodies rather than military actions. Phil Wilayto of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran called for the issue of sanctions to be one of the central demands in the upcoming October 2nd “One Nation Working Together” march on Washington.

There were also some critiques, mostly very mildly delivered, of Iran’s reported record on human rights and the treatment of political opposition within Iran. The issue of the death penalty was also raised, but most of the twenty-two people who spoke spent their time at the podium speaking about their opposition to the US portrayal of Iran and the importance of Iran as a counterpoint to the US role in the Middle East.

After about 90 minutes of presentations from the floor, President Ahmadinejad took the microphone to address the audience. His remarks were available in translation through small headsets at each table. He began and ended his remarks with reference to God, but the majority of his talk was about secular issues . He thanked the speakers for their comments, and said he agreed with all of them, but that he now wanted to say many of the same things in his own way. Speaking without notes, for just over 40 minutes, he never addressed the critiques directly. Nor did he mention by name either the United States or Israel (unlike in other speeches reported in the media), although he did raise the issues of the suffering and deaths of people caused by the actions of both governments. He spoke of the human desire for peace, and said “we believe that the only element that can lead to viable peace is to carry out justice – without justice, peace is meaningless.” He went on to say that “trying to build peace is the most important and comprehensive struggle that mankind can have.”

Ahmadinejad said the move toward justice was fulfilling a divine will, and that it was the desire of the majority of people in the world. “Those who are opposed to justice are a few, a minority,” he said. Echoing comments he had made earlier in the day at the United Nations, he went on to say: “It seems to me that one of the main factors in discrimination, and war, and injustice, is the capitalist system. The foundation of the capitalist system is based on superiority, hegemony, and the violation of the rights of others. You can see they start wars to fill up their pockets.”

President Ahmadinejad went on to speak of the rich scientific and cultural history of Iran, and asked why Iran was seen as an enemy. “We are not saying that there are no weaknesses in Iran, that there are no problems in Iran,” he went on. “Of course there are. Aren’t there problems and weaknesses in other parts of the world? But the heaviest price that is paid for propaganda against the nation [of Iran] is paid by the Iranian people.”

He finished by stating again that his government wants justice, and that “the main point that breaks justice is to have bad managers, those who are injust and try to manage the world.” He emphasized this issue of management, saying “all the problems we see in the world are because of managers who don’t do their jobs right, are unaware. If we want a world filled with peace and justice, then we must make an effort to improve management.”

Overall, no minds were changed in that room. Most who came were more favorably disposed toward Ahmadinejad’s message than the average person in the United States who only sees his words and his actions through the lens of large corporate media. But in the end, perhaps the main message of the evening is that, as Wallace Shawn’s play tells us, even if one disagrees with someone, it helps to sit down to dinner with them and learn as much about them as you can. Perhaps if U.S. policy makers could do this, it would relax tensions and help avoid potential conflict.

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