Very rarely are mere students afforded the chance to meet with heads of state. So when invited to dine with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week, I accepted.
It was not until I got there, however, that I started having second thoughts. Does my attendance somehow suggest compliance with his twisted worldview? How could I share a meal with a man who is responsible for persecuting students, like me, who happen to disagree with his politics? After all, it was just three months ago that I was anxiously awaiting the Iranian elections, having circled the date on my calendar.
Like millions worldwide, I understood how consequential the day was. As tensions between Iran and the US had been simmering for years, the prospect of a change in leadership seemed like one of the few remaining hedges against another four years of confrontational posturing and mounting antagonism. Chances were high that the Iranian people – the young majority – would have their “Obama moment” and vote a more progressive leader into office.
ON June 12th, however, when Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of the presidential elections before the polls had even closed or the votes had been counted, that hope died.
The following day, armed with a collective outrage over the rigged election, I attended the first of many protests in Paris. Over the next few weeks, I remained glued to the television, the blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter – anything to stay connected to what was happening in Iran. I was afraid that if the world stopped watching, we would start forgetting.
So I watched. I watched as hundreds of thousands of young people gathered in the streets of Teheran to demand their votes be counted, putting their very lives at risk for a say in their country’s direction. Like millions of others, I prayed for their safety when the massive crackdowns began; when even elderly women were being beaten in the streets; when universities were being ransacked and students arrested and tortured. I cried over the tragic footage of Neda, the young woman shot in broad daylight, blood pouring out of her eyes and nose.
After experiencing all that, how could I now sit with the very man whose corruption helped ignite those protests, whose cruelty did little to stop such brutality? I told myself I would stay, if only to ask Ahmadinejad why students were still being held in prison and when, if ever, they would be released. I would stay for them, the students, to prove that the world has not forgotten.
Of course, while waiting for that opportunity, I had to first endure a barrage of mindless propaganda and questions from Ahmadinejad himself.
He started his diatribe by asking those present to ponder the deeper meaning of life: who we were and why we were placed on Earth. He urged humanity to “find consensus on what unites us” so that we might establish a peace built on “justice and purity.”
It was at that moment that my head started pounding – the world feels strangely upside-down when Ahmadinejad is lecturing you on peace and purity.
After a few more sermons on the grandeur of Iran, the unshakeable unity of its people, and the unquestionable protection of its minorities, he started fielding questions from the guests.
When asked about the Holocaust, he — of course — doubted its existence. “If the Holocaust is such a fact,” he purred, “why are no scientists allowed to investigate?”
When asked about the mistreatment of Afghan refugees in Iran, he denied any such thing. When pressed about the release of Clotilde Reiss, a young French teacher awaiting release for her role in last June’s protests, he feigned an inability to interfere with the legal system.
By 10 p.m., it was clear the session was over, though many questions remained. As the Iranian president formally thanked the room, a young man interrupted his pleasantries, shouting, “Why have you only taken questions from Americans? Why are you ignoring us, the Iranians? Why are you so afraid to let us ask our questions?” Louder and louder the young man’s cries became, until security guards stepped forward to throw him out.
Looking out over the startled crowd, however, Ahmadinejad put on a smile and beckoned him to come forward. With the cameras still rolling, he agreed to take this Iranian’s question in private, fully aware this was the stuff good PR was made of — the reason he invited us to dinner in the first place. I left the dining hall in a state no better than when I started.
I might never know the question that compelled that student, like me, to dine with Ahmadinejad. But I am convinced that we are both, like the rest of the world, waiting for answers.
Andrew Kessinger, who interned with New Atlanticist this summer, is a graduate student pursuing a double degree in International Security at the Institut des Etudes Politiques in Paris (Sciences Po) and Columbia University (SIPA). This essay appeared in the International Herald Tribune (print only) and the Jerusalem Post.