K-School Professor Confronts Iran Pres.

Carter says Ahmadinejad only interested in “the sound of his own voice”

President Bush avoided a face-to-face confrontation with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the United Nations last week, but elsewhere on Manhattan, Kennedy School of Government professor Ashton B. Carter confronted the controversial Tehran chief head-on.

The encounter left some observers hopeful that the U.S. could strike up a dialogue with leader of a regime that admits it is pursuing a nuclear program. But for others, Ahmadinejad’s obstinance reinforced their impression that Iran isn’t willing to budge an inch on issues such as weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and human rights.

Ahmadinejad addressed two dozen members of the Council on Foreign Relations at a Manhattan hotel, according to the New York Times. Only four journalists—all of whom were members of the council—were let in.

Carter, a former assistant defense secretary under the Clinton administration and a member of the council, told The Crimson that the meeting addressed several issues, including “Ahmadinejad’s skepticism of the reality of the Holocaust, Iran’s nuclear programs, Lebanon and Iran’s support for Hezbollah, Iraq, and human rights.”

“It was my impression that Ahmadinejad was not very interested in hearing anything but the sound of his own voice,” Carter said. “He gave responses that to me seemed practiced and non-convincing, and in the case of the Holocaust, particularly disturbing.”

While Ahmadinejad spoke to the council for the bulk of the meeting, at one point Carter broke in.

“I had to interrupt him to say that the issue was not Iran’s right to have nuclear weapons, but human rights,” Carter said.

However, Ahmadinejad “returned to his set position,” according to Carter, and did not respond.

Nonetheless, Carter said he was glad he had the opportunity to “take a measure of the man who presents such a problem for U.S. foreign policy.”

Carter added that the Iranian leader’s attitude may possibly change with time.

Even though Ahmadinejad clashed with council members, Dillon Professor of Government Graham T. Allison Jr., a former director of the council who did not attend last week’s event, said that the meeting might have a “small but positive” effect on severely-strained U.S.-Iranian relations. “I think letting people see, talking to them, engaging them—that has a chance of having some impact,” said Allison, who—like Professor Carter—was as an assistant defense secretary under Clinton.

The Israeli ambassador to the U.S. criticized the council Friday for its “terrible mistake” of hosting Ahmadinejad, drawing a comparison between the invitation to the Iranian chief and a hypothetical invite to Hitler in the 1930s.

But the president of the Harvard Islamic Society, Ali A. Zaidi ’08, said that “regardless of the nation, it is always to the advantage of the United States to engage in a sort of civil discourse that will create a safer world.”