Last Thursday, 13 students sat down for an hour-long chat with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after his speech at the United Nations, in which his accusation that the United States was behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led American and European delegates to walk out.
The special visit was arranged by Hillary Mann Leverett for her seminar “U.S.-Iranian Diplomacy.” At the hotel where the Iranian delegation was staying, students questioned and talked with Ahmedinejad, his senior policy advisor and his chief advisor for international affairs.
Leverett said what came across from the meeting was that “he was probably not the stereotype of a crazy irrational figure … He has a strategy for Iran.” She said she also hopes students understand “that it will take a lot more from the U.S. if we want to have a real policy of engagement.”
While Washington has expressed interest in engaging Tehran diplomatically, it has also been using measures to pressure Tehran, such as sanctions.
Leverett’s general approach to U.S.-Iranian relations involves a policy of engagement rather than pressure. Though her views, which differ from those of the previous and current administrations, are controversial, she holds that engagement with Iran and a changing of U.S. attitudes toward the regime is the only way to bring about productive relations with Tehran.
Suchitra Vijayan GRD ’12 said she appreciated the opportunity to have an intimate talk with the man who has caused so much international uproar. She said Ahmedinejad conveyed how rhetoric is part of engagement and communication.
While she recognized the role of rhetoric in international relations, she added that it’s scary “when politicians keep repeating things until they believe it themselves,” she added.
Students in the class originally expressed interest in meeting with Ahmedinejad, which led Leverett to work on coordinating the discussion.
While Ahmedinejad was tied up in meetings before his talk with the students, they got to talk to his senior advisor, who has been close to him for many years.
“The senior advisor was interesting for the students, because he has been a long-time friend of the president,” Leverett said. “He was able to explain to the students in a very interesting unique way, I mean they couldn’t have heard it anywhere else, Ahmedinejad’s personal background.”
Leverett, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute this year, has served in the State Department and the National Security Council in various posts related to Middle Eastern affairs, and, as part of the U.S. envoy to the UN, she was authorized to negotiate with the Iranians about working together to deal with al Qaeda. She is now the CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a consulting firm.