What would you ask Iran’s Ahmadinejad?

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will take questions and answers at Columbia University while in New York for the occasion of his third annual speech to the United Nations since he took office.

In anticipation of his visit to Columbia University — a leading university in a society that values freedom of the press, academic freedom, and critical thought, including thought that is critical of the concepts and abuses of religion — President Ahmadinejad has explained that “[t]he United States is a big and important country with a population of 300 million. Due to certain issues, the American people in the past years have been denied correct and clear information about global developments and are eager to hear different opinions.” Apparently, President Ahmadinejad believes that one problem with America is that the population is being prevented from getting accurate information about the world from its press. One confusing aspect about President Ahmadinejad’s statement is that it is actually Iran, and not the United States, that employs policies of censorship of the press, lack of academic freedom, lack of freedom of conscience (i.e. freedom to criticize religion as well as freedom to belong to any religion or no religion) and other illiberal policies that suppress thought and speech and inhibit the pursuit of happiness and liberty generally.

President Ahmadinejad hopes to teach the American people something through his question and answer session with students at one of the world’s top universities where academic freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and other virtues of Western society reign supreme. This observer remains skeptical whether he will be successful in this ambition.

What would you ask President Ahmadinejad if you were in the audience at Columbia University?



  1. I would ask him about his domestic policy agenda and whether he thinks his record is enough to get him re-elected. And then ask who really wears the pants in Iranian politics, so I can go ask him probing questions.


  2. I think what I would ask him is why Americans should trust any word that comes out of his mouth. My question is not meant to be crude or rude, but rather straight forward. He’s clearly trying to attempt to change our perspective of him, (either that or stick a needle in our eyes), and of Iran. If his purpose is peaceful, what evidence does he have that we should take him at his word?

    Personally I don’t see him as the Great Satan conservatives keep hyping him up to be. He’s not been a very good leader domestically in Iran. And I really don’t think he’s trying to pick a fight with Americans, or other Middle Eastern countries.


  3. My questions would likely center on his comments relating to Israel/Holocaust denial and Iran’s alleged involvement in the Iraq war (e.g.- supplying weapons to Al Queda, training soldiers, etc.) Of course, as a matter of principle, you would not find me in the audience to hear Ahmadinejad speak.


  4. A year ago I asked him a few questions on his blog, but the comment never appeared on the blog and, of course, he didn’t give an answer. My comment was as follows:

    In your post you talk about how honorable Iran was during the Iraq-Iran war by not bombing Iraqi cities and towns. What is your view of Hezbollah firing missiles on Israeli cities and towns after Israel had pulled out of Southern Lebanon? If it is true that Iran chose not to bomb Iraqi cities and towns but limit bombing to Iraqi military targets during the Iran-Iraq war, then why is Iran supporting Hezbollah in shooting rockets into Israel from Southern Lebanon? Is it because the inhabitants of Israel are Jews and therefore it is honorable to bomb civilian targets in Israel?

    The blog post I was responding to contained President Ahmadinejad’s meandering reminiscences of his road to power and of the Iran/Iraq conflict. In current events, Hezbollah was again bombing Israel from southern Lebanon. My questions, therefore, were tailored to that issue.

    I notice that President Ahmadinejad has kept up with his blog, including an interesting Christmas post (for Christmas 2006) and other interesting posts, including some that seem to respond to some of the comments left at his blog. The comments, however, that appear on his blog go in this vein:

    President of Iran, Dr. Ahmadinejad, I think that this blog is a wonderful idea and I appreciate the time which you have spent to share your views truthfully and openly with the world, even in the English Language. I also find it fascinating that you – unlike our President – directly communicate with the people of the world and even accept feedback. I would love to see this done in my country. However, I have noticed that when I try to add a comment to your posts, commenting is configured only for speakers of Farsi – that is to say, the text goes from right to left and there are no English directions. Will you be adding a feature which will allow English speakers to easily comment directly to your posts? Thank you.

    This was left by an American named “J.K.” with an email address of fak…@ikillclowns.com. “I kill clowns dot com”? I’m not sure that President Ahmadinejad is really getting the joke.

    Other comments left by people listing themselves as Americans that made it through President Ahmadinejad’s filters include “Great site,Thank you very much Dr.Ahmadinejad for standing up for the truth and for standing up to evil and as a white male in the U.S. I give my full to you your country and i send you many blessings.” Hopefully, the students and faculty at Columbia University, no matter their political persuasion, will expect more accountability from President Ahmadinejad for his country’s policies restricting the freedom of the press, assembly, and religion, as well as the lack of civil rights in his country for women and others.


  5. Is it really that audacious for the leader of Iran to visit the United States? Why is it more audacious than having a visit from Gorbachev in the 1980s? Why does Gorbachev (or really any other Communist leader) get better treatment by some Americans on the right than this piddly Iranian? Must conservatives be reminded that the Soviet Union had nearly 14,000 nuclear missiles directed right at us? The threat from Iran will never EVER be anywhere near the same city, let alone the same ballpark of that of the threat from the Soviet Union.

    Must an enemy be treated with respect only when he is truly a credible and dangerous threat?

    Frankly, our responses to this man visiting New York City is appalling and shows how far we have fallen as a nation. I’m glad we’re still letting him in the country, but my goodness, where has our sense of respect and decency gone? The less respect we show this man, the less respect we receive from the rest of the world.


  6. I would ask him whether and to what extent he would see official engagement with the U.S. benefiting either or both of our countries, or whether the status quo is more optimal than any level of engagement.

    It would be interesting to hear whether the man is capable of saying anything pragmatic about world affairs, or if he is just a pure ideologue.

    There is so much extreme rhetoric flying around about this man that I have a hard time believing any of it. I am somewhat aware of the human rights situation in Iran (dissidents jailed, newspapers occasionally shut down, candidates for public office vetted, Sharia law enforced with the death penalty for certain offenses, etc.) – but I am not convinced that this situation is any less liberal than, say, China. Also, it seems ignorant of Iranian politics to refer the president as a dictator. This label should apply to the Supreme Leader, if anyone in Iran.


  7. His visit to Columbia U. has shown how ignorant US citizens are of world politics in general and has definitely brought out the worst in Mitt Romney, the guy who denied security to Khatami when he came to speak at Harvard a while back. Listen to what he has to say, and tell me what is wrong with it.


  8. My guess is that students and faculty at Columbia University are not ignorant of world politics in general.

    As for what is wrong with President Ahmadinejad’s views, there is much to mention:

    – he denies the Holocaust;
    – he has repeatedly called for the destruction of the State of Israel;
    – his regime restricts freedom of speech, academic freedom, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion;
    – his regime curtails the civil rights of women and others.


  9. lief said, I am somewhat aware of the human rights situation in Iran (dissidents jailed, newspapers occasionally shut down, candidates for public office vetted, Sharia law enforced with the death penalty for certain offenses, etc.) – but I am not convinced that this situation is any less liberal than, say, China.

    Exactly. The hope is that if China’s leader ever offered to do a question and answer session at Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, the students, and faculty would give him the same grilling that Bollinger gave President Ahmadinejad.


  10. I agree that students and faculty at Columbia University are not more ignorant of world politics in general than any other body of well-educated Americans, which is why I am puzzled by Bollinger’s implication that Ahmadinejad is a dictator, cruelty and pettiness aside. Of course Ahmadinejad wields power, but dictatorial powers? Heavens no. Three year olds might exhibit all the signs of a tyrant–selfish, rude, violent, etc.–but that behavior surely doesn’t warrant treating them as such. I think the West give Ahmadinejad too much credit, where it should response with a stifled yawn and a “next, please.”


  11. John said, Exactly. The hope is that if China’s leader ever offered to do a question and answer session at Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, the students, and faculty would give him the same grilling that Bollinger gave President Ahmadinejad.

    I don’t suppose Yale is close enough, but when Hu Jintao spoke there last year he was greeted warmly. The text of the Yale President’s speech is here.

    My point is simply that the spin machine has a great effect on how Americans perceive other countries, especially in the current climate with regard to Iran. Perhaps economics drives the spin – since we have virtually no economic relationship with Iran there is virtually no cost to branding it an “evil” country. We can’t afford to use the same loaded terms against China, though, even though China actually has nuclear weapons, has similar human rights abuses as Iran, wants to destroy the country of Taiwan, etc.


  12. John F,

    I’ll grant you the latter political problems in Iran, but the first two need clarification. The holocaust denial thing should be taken in the light that Pres. A. dishes it out. His main point with the issue as he stated with the 60 minutes interview last week, is that though the Holocaust occured (he concedes) why should Palestinians have to pay for it? Why make a country in Palestine and push the current inhabitants out? Why not put Israel in the heart of Europe where they received the atrocities of Hitler in the first place?

    The second point, that he has called out for the destruction of Israel is a tired, old heresy. He never said any such thing. This is a Farsi mistranslation that has been allowed to persist in the media and is used to the advantage of the war hawks in our country. He has never threatened Israel at all, except for threats of retaliation in the case of an attack by Israel.

    This is what I’m talking about when I say the students at Columbia seem to be ignorant. It is not their fault perhaps, but surely they should be able to see that Pres. A. is not worthy of the ruckus they made on campus during his speech. The local officials in New York who protested his presence, saying that they will try to cut public funding for Columbia U because Pres. A. was allowed to speak there, are not only ignoramuses, but they speak against the freedoms they proclaim to espouse.

    Especially, Mitt Romney has shown his intellectual immaturity during this whole fiasco.


  13. It is true that in his 2005 speech when the Western press reported President Ahmadinejad as calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, a more accurate translation should have been:

    “This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.”

    In other words, the initial MEMRI translation on which the Western media relied for their translation of the Farsi had substituted place for time by substituting “map” for “scene”. This is hardly less sinister than the mistranslation.

    The best Iranian translators in Iran have confirmed that the verb used is more correctly translated as “wiped off” or “eliminated” than as “vanished” as some tried to claim in the furor over the mistranslation.

    It is difficult to put a good spin on the regime in Iran. A free press and freedom of speech and conscience assure that the information that Americans have about Iran is certainly more reliable than the information Iranians get about American from their press.


  14. Incidentally, the complaint against President Ahmadinejad still stands even if one concedes that he was wishing Israel peace in his 2005 speech.

    As recently as June 2007, President Ahmadinejad repeated his views of Israel:

    Ahmadinejad said last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah showed for the first time that the “hegemony of the occupier regime (Israel) had collapsed, and the Lebanese nation pushed the button to begin counting the days until the destruction of the Zionist regime,” IRNA quoted him as saying.

    “God willing, in the near future we will witness the destruction of the corrupt occupier regime,” Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying during a speech to foreign guests mostly from African, Arab and neighboring countries who attended ceremonies marking the 18th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who is known as the father of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

    The “destruction of the Zionist regime” and the “destruction of the corrupt occupier regime [Israel]” stand on their own without reference to the 2005 speech about eliminating Israel from the pages of history.

    Note that the linked article refers also both to the “wiped off the wap” quote from 2005 and the alternative “vanish from the pages of time”.


  15. John F,

    I have heard these statements made by Pres. A. The only problem we have in the west is that we interpret these statements in a vacuum and completely ignore their context or the vast volume of Pres. A.’s statements on the subject of Israel. It becomes very clear that Iran has no hostile military intentions toward Israel when sound bites are seen in context.

    He has stated over and over again that he bears no ill will toward Jews in general. The “Zionist regime” which destruction he looks forward to is the current form of government in Israel that deals so harshly with Palestinian Arabs. How will this destruction occur as envisioned by Pres. A.? He has said:

    “Just as the Soviet Union was wiped out and today does not exist, so will the Zionist regime soon be wiped out.”

    The Soviet Union as we know melted away and was not attacked by any military. It collapsed.

    Iran’s ambassador has said this in an interview with CNN:

    BLITZER: But should there be a state of Israel?
    SOLTANIEH: I think I’ve already answered to you. If Israel is a synonym and will give the indication of Zionism mentality, no. But if you are going to conclude that we have said the people there have to be removed or they have to be massacred or so, this is fabricated, unfortunate selective approach to what the mentality and policy of Islamic Republic of Iran is. I have to correct, and I did so.

    In an interview with Time Magazine Pres. A. stated again his government’s policy toward Israel:

    TIME: You have been quoted as saying Israel should be wiped off the map. Was that merely rhetoric, or do you mean it?
    Ahmadinejad: […] Our suggestion is that the 5 million Palestinian refugees come back to their homes, and then the entire people on those lands hold a referendum and choose their own system of government. This is a democratic and popular way.

    And of course, the true leader of Iran, the guy with real power and say over foreign policy, the Ayatollah, says the same thing:

    “We hold a fair and logical stance on the issue of Palestine. Several decades ago, Egyptian statesman Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was the most popular Arab personality, stated in his slogans that the Egyptians would throw the Jewish usurpers of Palestine into the sea. Some years later, Saddam Hussein, the most hated Arab figure, said that he would put half of the Palestinian land on fire. But we would not approve of either of these two remarks. We believe, according to our Islamic principles, that neither throwing the Jews into the sea nor putting the Palestinian land on fire is logical and reasonable. Our position is that the Palestinian people should regain their rights. Palestine belongs to Palestinians, and the fate of Palestine should also be determined by the Palestinian people. The issue of Palestine is a criterion for judging how truthful those claiming to support democracy and human rights are in their claims. The Islamic Republic of Iran has presented a fair and logical solution to this issue. We have suggested that all native Palestinians, whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews, should be allowed to take part in a general referendum before the eyes of the world and decide on a Palestinian government. Any government that is the result of this referendum will be a legitimate government.”


  16. Also, looking at the pattern of history, we can see that Iran has never attacked another nation. It would be healthy to doubt that Iran is about to change that pattern based on some way overhyped sound bites.

    On the other hand, when the US or Israel threaten military action, the historical pattern should give one pause. The US and Israel have both been threatening Iran with military action for some time now.


  17. Curtis, I like your take on it. Context is king.

    I also don’t buy into 100% of the “axis of evil” BS that we’ve been handed. Sure, the guy is terrible in our eyes, and there are probably lots of dissenters in Iran who hate him, but American mainstream media has a lame history of hyping up things like this. Then there’s the whole nukes issue. I laugh when I hear what conservatives have to say about Iran obtaining nukes. Iranians understand the blowback principle, just like all other countries with nukes. I think they just want some leverage in the Middle East, and nukes is a way to get it. Will they actually use them? I doubt it. The only country to ever use nukes was the US, and it used them on two defenseless non-military targets in Japan. Iran with nukes doesn’t scare me.


  18. Obviously, Ahmadinejad is a dangerous man. Adam Smith described the problem best when he pointed out that virtue is more fearsome than vice because it is not regulated by the conscience.

    Self-righteousness motivates Ahmadinejad to suppress women to give them “respect,” to deny the Holocaust as a matter of “truth” and to threaten Israel with annihilation in the name of “justice.”

    It’s difficult to reason with people who confuse power for virtue.

    At the same time, we have to realize that the Bush administration has turned down every opportunity to improve relations with Iran. Iran was helpful during the invasion of Afghanistan, for example, and during reconstruction efforts.

    The Clinton administration was not much better. They failed to capitalize on the opportunities that presented themselves when the Iranian people told off the clerical fascists and elected Mohammad Khatami. Of course, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans in Congress would have flamed Clinton had he approached Khatami. Still, the costs of lost opportunities continue to burden us today.

    If the United States government had vigorously pursued our interests instead of preaching and lecturing other countries about their “obligations,” our relationship with Iran could have been transformed a long time ago. Our own foreign policy is also hampered by self-righteousness.

    Bush and Cheney confuse their personal interests with the interests of the nation, which is an indication that they are operating with the mindset of toddlers.

    Ahmadinejad may have never won the presidency had we rewarded Iranian reformers under his predecessor. The Bush administration is Ahmadinejad’s biggest asset. In turn, Ahmadinejad amplifies Dick Cheney’s power in the administration.

    The best way to get rid of Ahmadinejad is to remove Cheney from office. In a parliamentary democracy, Cheney and his boss would have been long gone.


  19. Hellmut,

    I take issue with your characterization of Pres. A. as a dangerous man. I’m just not seeing it. A bit nutty and a part of the human rights abuses institutionalized in Iran no doubt, but on the national scene he’s not really a threat at all. See my comment above for more information. I think that our government would like us to think he is a dangerous man so that full support can be garnered for possible military action against Iran (we’ve seen the demonization of leaders of countries we want to attack constantly throughout US history, while there are equally wicked or worse leaders in nations that are our strategic allies). I feel that our press and public are falling into the same trap again and it’s really getting old. When will we learn?


  20. I might agree with you in the sense that Ahmadinejad’s threats neither justify the invasion nor the bombing of Iran. There are other considerations such as our lack of capacity to promote our interests militarily, the divisions among the Iranian people and elites, and the ability of Israel and the United States to deter Iranian aggression.

    None of that, however, changes the fact that Ahmadinejad is dangerous. He is belittling and denying violence against Jewish people. Ahmadinejad and his base are destabilizing Lebanon. His henchmen are killing gays, feminists, and intellectuals.

    Although the activities of the Revolutionary Guards in Iraq are troubling, that is an unnecessary problem were it not for the Bushies’ strategic ineptitude.

    It would be irresponsible to let our wishes, goals, and desires shape our perception of reality. I will leave that to the neocons and their Christianist allies. In the meanwhile, I will try my best to submit my views to logic and evidence.

    Of course, I am bound to fail but as long as mortals keep at it, over the long run, they produce better results.

    With respect to Ahmadinejad, all the evidence indicates that he is dangerous.


  21. What really chaps me about people’s gripes on Pres. A. is that they don’t bother to look inward first. They say Pres. A. takes arrests and imprisons people for no good reason, yet Bush does the same thing. Then there’s the cries that Pres. A. perverts freedom of the press, but our guy does that too. And then there’s the issue of state-sponsored killing for “dissenters,” which we also do as well, (and, sadly, it’s become quite popular). Our guy may not be as extreme as their guy, but the two have a lot in common.


  22. I think that’s kind of an extreme statement, David. I understand your point and also the impetus behind the comment, but must ask, do you really see such similarity between the closed, repressive society that is the Islamic Republic of Iran and the constitutional and rights-based democracy that is the United States?

    The list of comparisons that you provide there is an exaggeration. No matter how much you dislike Bush, it doesn’t bode well for argumentation to compare him to Ahmadinejad. For one thing, free press simply doesn’t exist in Iran, to my understanding. You just can’t publish newspaper articles critical of Ahmadinejad or the revolutionary regime there without risking life and limb. There is no comparison there to the United States, even if there are currently debates about journalists’ constitutional privilege regarding divulging sources, etc.

    Curtis made great points in favor of Ahmadinejad. I agree that perhaps American society is unfairly biased against the Islamic Republic, perhaps based in large part of the rhetoric that comes out of the Iran from the Ayatollahs, etc., but also, admittedly, perhaps based additionally to some extent on our leaders’ rhetoric in response to all the jihad and Great Satan talk. But there is virtue in calling a spade a spade, David. A liberal, social progressive, secular, gay, or member of any religious minority (i.e. not Shiite) is far better off under Bush’s America than Ahmadinejad’s Iran. In fact, according to Ahmadinejad, there are no gay people in Iran. Well, there is logic to that statement — if you execute them, there will be less of them.


  23. Of course American society is far healthier than Iran’s. To suggest otherwise is stupid.

    But in terms of the body-count in countries not their own, Bush’s policies have cost more lives than Ahmadinejad’s. We fret over Iran’s alleged plans to wage wars of aggression while forgetting we’ve done a lot of that ourselves.

    Don’t make me an apologist for Iran, but the cartoonish hatred for this one little man is overblown, IMO.


  24. John, i’m not making direct comparison, I’m making a degree of comparison. Huge difference. Moreover, most of the bad policies we’ve passed in the last 7 years go un-noticed by most Americans. Please read this.


  25. Whether Bush compares to Ahmadinejad is besides the point. The fact is that Bush has surrendered our values. In the process, he has violated human rights and undermined our capacity to confront tyrants around the world and to fight terrorism.

    Besides, Ahmadinejad is no Hitler. He is not the leader of a developed nation. Iran is on the verge of bankruptcy. Its intellectuals are opposing the regime. 3/4 of all Iranians are children and teenagers.

    Whatever threat Iran presents to the world is manageable unless we loose our cool. Iran’s greatest asset is our stupidity. Beyond that, Iran does not have much to offer.


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