President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sparred with a high-level group from the Council on Foreign Relations for ninety minutes Wednesday on virtually every contentious issue between the United States and Iran.
There were no obvious changes in the responses given by Ahmadinejad, who has been granting interviews to major news organizations over the past week ahead of his trip to the opening session of the UN General Assembly. But the Iranian leader engaged in a protracted punch and counterpunch with the panel.
“I’m not sure we learned anything new,” said Richard N. Haass, the CFR president, in comments afterwards. But he said it was possible the Iranian president might have learned something of American attitudes from the session. The meeting, which sparked controversy among members of the Council and some Jewish groups, featured more than two dozen Council members and some ten Iranian officials under tight security at the Intercontinental Hotel on East Forty-eighth Street in New York.
Differing views were apparent from the first question of the evening, when Peter G. Peterson, CFR's chairman, questioned Ahmadinejad’s frequent assertion that the Holocaust was a “myth” and that more research had to be done to ascertain the truth on whether the six million Jews who perished in World War II were victims of Nazi genocide. Peterson noted that he and David Rockefeller, who was also a participant in the meeting, had visited Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in Poland, and he said that the majority of American Jews and non-Jews alike were “horrified” by Ahmadinejad's assertion that the Holocaust was a “myth.” The Iranian said he doubted Americans all held such a view.
He repeated what he has said in previous interviews—namely that some sixty million people died in World War II, and so why the special attention paid to the question of Jews? He said the question deserved more study. He then went on to say the real question is why the Palestinians had to “pay for that” by being forced to give up their lands, and go into exile. He likened the Palestinians who have been killed to “genocide.”
Martin S. Indyk, who has served twice as the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and a tour as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, noted he had endeavored during the Clinton administration to work out a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but that Iranian-supported terrorists “did everything possible” to prevent it. The Iranian president again repeated what he has said before, namely that all Palestinians should “decide” their future.
On the question of Iran’s nuclear program, the Iranian president broke no new ground. He was questioned by Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser, as to why Iran insisted on going ahead with its uranium enrichment program. Others asked why Iran did not accept the offer made by President Bush for Iran to have peaceful uses of nuclear energy so long as it stopped the enrichment program.
Ahmadinejad repeated that Iran had the right to develop a peaceful nuclear program, and that it had no intention of building nuclear weapons. He noted that only the United States and “a few” European countries felt differently. He said he had just come from the nonaligned nations conference in Havana where Iran got complete support for its nuclear program.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said "Iranian journalists are imprisoned and newspapers are closed” and that "elections are not free." He added: “You speak of the rights of Palestinians but Iran provided rockets to Hezbollah that killed Palestinians in Israel. Would you be willing to change your policies at home?” This led Ahmadinejad to claim that his country was freer than the United States.
“Please don’t allow yourself to be involved in the domestic politics of other countries or there is much more we can all say. If you think you can affect our people with your statements you are wrong. We had free elections—I spoke with people and they chose me. This is a unique, pure democracy, which is impossible in your country. Which country is freer and more democratic? I am ready for an independent discussion on this. Let people decide for themselves. By creating a wind now you are creating a bigger storm,” Ahmadinejad said.
When asked by Fareed Zakaria, a columnist and editor for Newsweek, whether there was a way to restoring the good relations that once existed between the two countries, the Iranian president blamed the United States for the break in relations following the Iranian revolution in 1979. He did not mention the seizure of American embassy hostages for 444 days. “Those who cut off relations and destroyed them have to fix it,” he said.
As the meeting drew to a close, the Iranian leader observed, “In the beginning of the session you said you are independent, and I accepted that. But everything you said seems to come from the government perspective.” Haass responded that there had been no advance coordination among the Council participants and that “the aim was to expose you to views of a broad range of Americans. It would be wrong for you to leave this meeting thinking that you heard unrepresentative views.”