“We believe the production or use of nuclear weapons is immoral.” — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Hours after he spoke to the United Nations, the Iranian president made this clear, unequivocal statement to a group of us during a private meeting in New York. The Mennonite Central Committee organized an extraordinary, private session for about 50 people to dialogue with President Ahmadinejad about the escalating crisis between the U.S. and Iran.
I left the hour-long meeting convinced, as did many, if not all, of my colleagues, that the Iranian leader is a deeply religious person who approaches the issue of nuclear weapons from a moral perspective. The Iranian leader expressed great interest in establishing a dialogue with the religious community in the United States, and he explained that he views Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as three co-equal religions.
“Our position toward the Palestinian question is clear: we say that a nation has been displaced from its own land. Palestinian people are killed in their own lands, by those who are not original inhabitants, and they have come from far areas of the world and have occupied those homes. 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. Do you have any other suggestions?” (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, qtd. in Scott MacLeod, “‘We Do Not Need Attacks’: An Interview with Ahmadinejad,” Time 17 September 2006).
Of course, I suspect that all of the people in this meeting had many areas where we probably disagree with the policies of the Iranian government. For instance, FCNL is concerned about political prisoners in Iran, religious tolerance, and Iran’s position on Israel. We also were aware that the Iranian president met with us as part of his effort to defuse the looming crisis between the Iranian government and the international community over Iran’s nuclear energy program.
But I’ve been a lobbyist working for the abolition of nuclear weapons for more than a decade, and I’ve talked about these issues with a lot of people. Ahmadinejad impressed me as someone who had thought about these issues a lot. He’s a former engineer, who is thinking through the arguments from a number of different perspectives.
“The bottom line is, we do not need a bomb, unlike what others think.
Regretfully, some believe that the nuclear bomb can be effective in international relations. They’re wrong, because the time for nuclear bombs has ended. We know that. These nuclear arsenals will not benefit anyone.
They have to spend so much money destroying them. If the nuclear bomb could have saved anyone, it would have prevented the collapse of the Soviet Union. If the nuclear bomb could have created security, it would have prevented, perhaps, September 11th. If the nuclear bomb could have done anything, it could have, perhaps, stopped the Palestinian intifada” (“President Ahmadinejad’s News Conference,” CQ Transcripts Wire, Washington Post, 21 September 2006).
For instance, although he starts any discussion by saying that nuclear weapons are immoral, Ahmadinejad also reminded us that the Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons, which didn’t prevent their government from collapsing. He added that, during Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s, Iraq’s alliance with a country with nuclear weapons (presumably he was referring to the United States) didn’t have any impact on the war. He convinced me that Iran is not interested in developing nuclear weapons.
Iran is interested in developing nuclear energy. As a former engineer, he believes that nuclear fuel is the cleanest fuel there is and he explained that this energy source is critical for the future development of his country. And Ahmadinejad bristles at suggestions that the United States or anyone else would try to dictate how his country pursued its energy needs.
But how do we get beyond the current impasse, we asked him? Ahmadinejad suggested that the UN’s Committee on Disarmament, based in Geneva, might be one forum where these discussions should take place. He then offered a proposal: Iran will open all of its nuclear facilities to inspections, if the United States will also open its facilities to inspections. Neither Iran nor the U.S. have implemented the Additional Protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that includes additional inspections, although we at FCNL believe both countries should do so. He added that the United States should refrain from building so-called second or third generation nuclear weapons.
Now, I’m not endorsing Iran’s proposals or even arguing this is the only path to peace. And, in our meeting in New York on Wednesday, the Iranian president made other comments that I found deeply troubling. In particular, I was struck by his comments about the Holocaust. He did not deny the Holocaust, but he still conveyed a view that the matter is debatable. In these comments he sounded a lot like politicians in the U.S. Congress who deny that global warming is a fact, even though there is a significant body of evidence that cannot be denied.
But when he spoke about issues that I cover, the nuclear weapons issues, what struck me is that the Iranian president was offering a reasonable basis for real negotiations. Since Ahmadinejad took office, Iran has been backing away from permitting full inspections of its nuclear program. But I think this is a bargaining stance to start negotiations. Iran wants to have full rights for civilian nuclear energy, including nuclear enrichment. Iranian leaders also want some kind of assurance that the United States will not bomb their country.
The day I left Washington to go to New York for this meeting, I attended a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The contrast was striking. Nicholas Burns, the number three official at the State Department, spent most of that hearing lobbing what I can only describe as rhetorical hand grenades at Iran. In his first State of the Union address, President Bush described Iran as part of the “axis of evil.” That’s still the approach of some in the U.S. government.
But what is even more striking is the pride U.S. officials take in insisting they will not even talk to Iran. Nicholas Burns, in his testimony this week to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made a point of saying he has never met with an Iranian government official. Now here is a man who has been part of the U.S. foreign service for decades, and he made a point of pride that he had never met with any Iranian official. If the U.S. continues to insist that no dialogue is possible with Iran, then war is the likely alternative.
David Culp is a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s Quaker Nuclear Disarmament Program. He can be reached at (202)903-2517 or firstname.lastname@example.org. FCNL, the oldest registered religious lobby in Washington, is a non-partisan Quaker lobby in the public interest. FCNL works with a nationwide network of tens of thousands of people from every state in the U.S. to advocate for social and economic justice, peace, and good government. For more information: www.fcnl.org. This article was first published by CommonDreams.org on 22 September 2006.