An appearance by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before the Council on Foreign Relations Wednesday night has touched off a debate on whether there is any point in talking to the Holocaust-doubting Iranian president whose nuclear threats against Israel have made him an international pariah.
The nonpartisan think tank insists the meeting was an open exchange, not simply a polemic platform for the extremist leader, in town for the General Assembly of the United Nations, where thousands of protestors against Ahmadinejad gathered outside Wednesday.
Some Jewish leaders denounced the CFR and refused to attend the session.“
There is no reason in the world to allow him to spread his venal message,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, leader of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a member of the CFR.
“The idea that, somehow, communication in this instance will make a difference has been proven false. The Europeans have had many meetings with him and all it does is provide the opportunity to lie.”
Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League also denounced the forum and refused to participate, telling the Jewish Week it would be “the height of arrogance” to believe anything said to Ahmadinejad at the meeting would change his views.
“In order to run in Iran you must pass the test of 100 extremist clerics who have to approve your views,” said the ADL leader. “He’s very set in his ways, and that’s why they permitted people to vote for him.”
A spokeswoman for the CFR, Lisa Shields, said the meeting included “council members with relative expertise on nuclear arms, human rights, Iranian politics and Islam,” and was “an opportunity to engage the president in an unfiltered way. There are no ground rules.”
So why not take an opportunity to tell Ahmadinejad off in person?“This is a guy who needs to be isolated,” said Hoenlein. “A few people sitting down with him in New York and saying denying the Holocaust is not nice isn’t going to change anything when he has an exhibit in Iran of cartoons that deny the Holocaust.”
Michael O’Hanlon, an expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution in Washington, disagreed, saying Ahmadinejad “doesn’t know many Americans, and realizing that we are reasonable, fair-minded people may help at least soften some of his views.” While supporting a ban on official U.S. contact, O’Hanlon said the CFR exchange, which was first reported in the New York Sun, might also offer an insight into what motivates Ahmadinejad. “Is it grandeur or real hatred or is he caught up in a back and forth with George Bush? Any dialogue is only in our interest.”