A presidential reception

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, arrived in a New York with a clear mission: to convince both the American public and UN general assembly that if anyone is eager for war it is American government, not Iranian.

His efforts to strike a friendlier note began prior to his arrival with a request to visit Ground Zero to pay respect to the victims – a symbolic gesture. Considering Iran response right after 9/11 was immense sympathy and there has never been a link between Iran and al-Qaeda, the refusal to grant a visit seemed unnecessary and unfriendly.

After his arrival, despite a mirage of insults and welcome-for-devil reception he has held himself pretty calm, carefully drawing a new and far softer picture of himself. His balanced response to mean-spirited introduction by the University of Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, did Ahmadi-Nejad more good than harm. He politely complained about the insulting introduction but quickly shifted the focus of his discussion to the importance of science, and then moved to discuss current politics revealing a much softer president and policies.

For the first time he made it clear that US and Iran could be great friends. He talked of brotherhood between the two countries provided US shows respect for Iran - a clear step away from the hardliners in Iran. He emphasized that there is "no war in the offing", in effect throwing the ball into the US court.

He also showed a new approach to Israel, limiting his demands to a referendum in Palestine. His previous denial of the holocaust was now rephrased by a call for further research. Even that was framed as his personal concern as a scholar and not as a president “I am an academic, and you are as well. Can you argue that researching a phenomenon is finished, forever done? Can we close the books for good on a historical event? There are different perspectives that come to light after every research is done. Why should we stop research at all? Why should we stop the progress of science and knowledge?” Finally he made it clear that “Iran will not attack Israel.

He goofed when asked about the gays in Iran by saying “In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country. We don't have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it.” Still, as many scholars have pointed out, constructions of sexuality in the United States can differ from those in other cultures.

In Iran officials and media put political differences aside and showed outrage over the insults. "Although reformists disagree with Mr. Ahmadinejad ... an insult to his legal personality abroad is in fact an insult to our country as a legal entity." Published in Ethmad newspaper. It went as far as suggesting that the president should have walked out. Meanwhile, state television made no mention of the unfriendly reception.

But president himself remained calm. In his conversation with CNN’s Christine Amanpour, when asked if he has any regrets in going to Colombia university, he surprisingly was positive, saying “what mattered that I spoke to 7000 students for over an hour”, he thought that the introduction was “under influence of politics” and unnecessary. He went on saying never-the-less “students could draw their own conclusion”. His conversation with Charlie Rose showed him focused on his message. He stated that he was ready for negotiation and pointed out that “the willingness was not there in the part of US administration”. He stressed that Iran wants to be friends with everyone saying “we have no enmity with anyone”. He complained that “authorities here are over sensitive unnecessarily” and finally said “there is no need for war”.

Unfortunately, the US media chose to focus their attention on homosexuality, and completely ignored his far more important message on the far more important question of war.

With the Senate poised to pass the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment (No. 3017) that would allow the US government to use any means deemed necessary including military to stop Iran's involvement in Iraq--a critical step towards war--Ahmadi-Nejad's visit should have been seized as an occasion for diplomacy, not cultural derision.

While many comments previously made by Mr. Ahmadi-Nejad, especially about the holocaust are offensive and indefensible to many inside and outside Iran, one should not lose sight of the fact that US-Iranian relations go far beyond personal animosity towards Ahmadi-Nejad. Ahmadi-Nejad's trip to the US should have been used for setting mechanisms to defuse the anger between the two countries and to create a constructive dialogue. Such diplomacy has worked in the case of US relations with North Korea and Libya. The same mechanism should be used with Iran. It can prevent yet another Middle Eastern war in which the United States and Iran will both lose.

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