by Dennis Busch
Members of the Islamic Parliament and the
Iran Delegation to the UN.
Michael O. Leavitt Center members with
Column: SUU students meet Iranian leaders in Big Apple
This last week I had a unique opportunity with 11 other students from SUU and the Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics & Public Service to travel to New York City to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the controversial figure and President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The week's events, which were organized with the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy, allowed us to engage Iranian leaders on a myriad of topics from foreign policy, nuclear development, human rights violations and even the holocaust.
The meeting with Ahmadinejad on Sept. 23 was probably the most secure event I have attended in my life, with so many Secret Service agents you would have thought Lady Bird Johnson was coming.
Soon after we all got through security and inside The Barclay, the street in front of this ornate hotel was filled with impassioned protestors waving signs and chanting about their dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad's regime and with us for meeting with him.
While waiting in a reception room before being allowed to enter the ballroom, we were presented with literature about the tourism industry of Iran, the successes of Ahmadinejad and a ridiculous brochure about the evils of Zionist states - a must-read for every anti-Semite.
As we were finally led into the ballroom, we were informed that because delays at the U.N., we would have to wait even longer for the president to take our questions.
Former Iranian Vice President, Parviz Davoodi, filled this long gap by talking about the amazing things Iran and its people have done, lacing his talk with all the flair and excitement of a Harry Reid filibuster speech.
When Ahmadinejad finally arrived, he almost immediately started questions, and the first question was about the mistreatment and imprisonment of Afghan refugees.
Ahmadinejad replied that information was incorrect and that the UN High Commissioner on refugees had commended Iran on their treatment of refugees.
However, he then instructed the Iranian state television, the only press covering the event, not to broadcast the answer to the question stating that it would "make their Afghani brothers sad to hear."
The state press selectively did not record several of the president's answers, including his anything-but-brief response on a question about the Holocaust, and his questioning of some of the facts surrounding the Jewish genocide.
One of the last questions asked to Ahmadinejad was what he would do in response to President Barack Obama's assertions that as a neighbor of Afghanistan, Iran should play a role in stabilizing the area.
The president claimed that since the NATO forces entered Afghanistan, drug production has increased, and the area has become unstable. He went on to assert that any country is wrong if they think that military force will bring about stability.
In total, he answered about 20 questions and talked with us for almost three hours.
In addition to UVU and Westminster College, the other schools in attendance included Columbia, Rutgers, NYU and Yale, and not surprising, Utah students held their own amongst the Ivy Leaguers.
On Friday, we had the additional opportunity to meet and ask questions with four religious minority members of the Parliament of Iran representing Assyrian Christians, Armenian Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews.
Ciamak Moresadegh, the Jewish MP essentially said Ahmadinejad is wrong about the Holocaust, and that it is a scientific fact that affected all Jews of the world.
These religious minorities, which are recognized by the constitution, also stressed that Bahá'í, the largest non-Islamic faith in Iran, is not a religion at all, and thus does not receive support nor protection from the government.
While there were questions about nuclear facilities and foreign policy, they were largely centered on religious freedom, and at one point, a representative of the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations said in regards to the peaceful nature of Iran, "If Joseph Smith had been amongst Muslims, he would have been safe."
Overall, the event appeared to be a political stunt, aimed at making the president look like he was reaching out for diplomacy and supporting his people.
Many reports prior to the event indicated that the religious minority MPs were strongly urged to attend in an effort to make the Ahmadinejad regime look better on issues of religious freedom.
Our meeting with human rights groups beforehand only further underscored that the meeting would be a public relations stunt, and that we should show our solidarity with the reformers in the country as much as possible, including wearing green.
Regardless of what the implications are of our attendance, I am glad we went. I personally learned so much. Even if I end up on some no fly list, I think my first hand experience with diplomacy has been worth it. And even more, SUU students were participating in an event that made national news, and is the ultimate path to peace in the region - interfaith and intercultural dialogue.
© 2009 Dennis Busch, Jami Bonner, University Journal