Iranian foreign relations went from theory to reality for 17 students from the “Iran in International Relations since 1979” seminar last week when they attended a private reception with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York City.
Before an audience of about 100 students from American universities on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad answered questions politely and effusively but avoided directly responding to controversial questions. Though students in attendance said Ahmadinejad’s arguments were logical, they disagreed with many of his statements, including his denial of existing scientific evidence that proves the Holocaust occurred.
Ahmadinejad, who was in New York as a keynote speaker at the United Nations General Assembly, deftly skirted around questions about issues such as Iran’s political system and nuclear proliferation, visiting political science lecturer Maximilian Terhalle said.
“It’s like you can’t penetrate this ideological bulwark,” Terhalle said. “It was like throwing a ball and having it come back at you.”
Ahmadinejad was especially collected given that several U.N. representatives had just walked out of his speech at the U.N. that afternoon, Patricia Alejandro ’12.
Terhalle, whose connections with a high-ranking official at the Iranian Embassy in New York enabled him to bring the class to the talk, said the talk allowed students to reflect on the different messages coming out of Iran, a theme that has been present in their readings.
Ahmadinejad did not arrive at the Intercontinental Hotel until 9 p.m., after the U.N. speaker before him, Libyan leader Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, ran two hours over schedule. But while they were waiting, students said they were inundated with Iranian hospitality, including a buffet of Iranian appetizers, a display of tourism brochures, and a documentary about Iranian culture and history.
“It was like Epcot,” Alejandro said, referring to Disney World’s theme park.
Embassy officials were clearly trying to demonstrate that Iran is a wealthy country “on eye level with the West” and is open to dialogue, Terhalle said.
June Torbati ’10, who is Iranian, said that seeing the president in person, cracking jokes and posing for pictures, allowed her to see him more as a human being instead of a media figure. Her opinion of him, however, has not changed.
“I saw him as a politician before, and I see him as a politician now,” said Torbati, who also brought four members of Yale’s Persian Society. (Torbati is a staff reporter for the News.)
Though Alejandro said she did not notice ideological tensions in the room, Ahmadinejad clearly had an agenda hidden beneath his calm exterior, she said.
Ahmadinejad, who is visiting the United States for the first time since his re-election in June, has been president of Iran since 2005.