Iran’s Leader Relishes 2nd Chance to Make Waves

By DAVID E. SANGER

New York Times

September 22, 2006

When President Bush and his advisers decided to allow President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran into the country to address the United Nations, their strategy was simple: containment.

There would be no visits to other cities where he could denounce Washington or question Israel’s legitimacy. There would be no opportunities, beyond his speech to the General Assembly, to turn questions about his nuclear intentions into repeated diatribes about America’s nuclear arsenal.

It turned out that Mr. Ahmadinejad had a Plan B.

The scope of his determination to dominate not only the airwaves but the debate became evident yesterday evening, when he entered a hotel conference room on the East Side with a jaunty smile, a wave and an air of supreme confidence.

Over the objections of the administration and Jewish groups that boycotted the event, Mr. Ahmadinejad, the man who has become the defiant face of Iran, squared off with the nation’s foreign policy establishment, parrying questions for an hour and three-quarters with two dozen members of the Council on Foreign Relations, then ending the evening by asking whether they were simply shills for the Bush administration.

Never raising his voice and thanking each questioner with a tone that oozed polite hostility, he spent 40 minutes questioning the evidence that the Holocaust ever happened — “I think we should allow more impartial studies to be done on this,” he said after hearing an account of an 81-year-old member, the insurance mogul Maurice R. Greenberg, who saw the Dachau concentration camp as Germany fell — and he refused to even consider Washington’s proposal for Russia to provide Iran with nuclear reactor fuel, and take it back once it is used. (Without the capacity to enrich fuel on its own soil Iran would be unable to make fuel suitable for a nuclear weapon.)

He traced the history of 50 years of unfilled deals with the United States, Germany, France and others — skipping over the Iranian revolution and the hostage-taking that followed — and concluded, “How can we rely on these partners.” His solution? The United States should shut down its own fuel production and “within five years, we will sell you our own fuel, with a 50 percent discount!” He settled back into his seat with a broad smile that some in the group described as a smirk.

The decision by the council’s president, Richard N. Haass, to invite Mr. Ahmadinejad to the session touched off a rare outcry protest in an organization whose meetings are usually as staid as the portraits of long-forgotten diplomats on its walls.

Mr. Haass, who ran the policy planning branch of the State Department during Mr. Bush’s first term, first had to fend off senior administration officials who had argued that he should not give Mr. Ahmadinejad the legitimacy of a hearing — especially with the likes of Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser under President Bush’s father, or Robert D. Blackwill, who directed Iraq policy at the White House under Condoleezza Rice.

“It’s fair to say that Dr. Rice thought this was a bad idea,” one senior State Department official said. “A really, really bad idea.”

So did leaders of several Jewish groups, whom Mr. Haass invited — and who promptly asked if the council would have invited Hitler in the 1930’s. “Some of us considered quitting to make it clear how offensive this is,” said Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was one of the Jewish leaders whose attendance Mr. Haass sought.

But after a flurry of phone calls, including with Elie Wiesel, the writer and Holocaust survivor, they decided against a mass resignation — particularly after the council made the session a “meeting” rather than a dinner. (There were light hors d’oeuvres on the side; Mr. Ahmadinejad never touched them.)

“It is more offensive to break bread with the guy,” Mr. Foxman said. “I thought dinner was crossing the line.”

But the council pointed out that it had served as host for many world leaders equally skilled at repressing dissidents, developing suspected weapons programs, shutting down a free press and denouncing Israel.

“We’ve had Castro,” said Lisa Shields, the council’s communications director, ticking off the gallery of leaders Washington considered rogues. “We’ve had Arafat, and Mugabe. We’ve had Gerry Adams.”

The greeting yesterday evening was not exactly overwhelming. There were no introductory handshakes, no diplomatic niceties. All of the Americans who were invited to attend, including four journalists, were members of the council. Iran’s effort to bring in television cameras was deflected, apparently because the council feared that the session would be used for political purposes in Iran, where Mr. Ahmadinejad is presumably eager to show that even if President Bush refused to meet him, he got his message across.

In fact he did — meeting academics in the morning and religious leaders at midday, and speeding from the council meeting for another television interview. He did most of this without leaving the Intercontinental Hotel on 48th Street in Manhattan.

The council would not say how many of the invitees had refused to attend. But members said they knew of more than a half-dozen, from the publisher Mort Zuckerman to the former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. It is unclear why some declined. A few claimed scheduling conflicts, rather than moral objections.

The handful who had a chance to quiz the Iranian president went out of their way, within the limits of diplomatic etiquette, to make clear to Mr. Ahmadinejad that they thought his characterizations of Israel and the Holocaust were repugnant and that his nuclear strategy was self-defeating. He gave no ground.

When Martin S. Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel, told Mr. Ahmadinejad that Iran “did everything possible to destroy’’ efforts to bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the president said, “If you believe Iran is the reason for the failure, you are making a second mistake.’’ Why, he asked, should the Palestinians be asked to “pay for an event they had nothing to do with’’ in World War II, saying that they had nothing to do with the systematic killing of Jews — if those killings, he added, had happened at all.

“In World War II about 60 million people were killed,’’ he said at one point, when pressed again on his refusal to accept that the Holocaust happened. “Two million were military. Why is such prominence given to a small portion of those 60 million?’’

A few minutes later, he asked a question himself: “In the Council on Foreign Relations, is there any voice of support for the Palestinians?’’

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s habit of answering every question about Iranian policy with a question about American policy was clearly wearing on some of the members, but at the end they acknowledged that he was about as skillful an interlocutor as they had ever encountered. “He is a master of counterpunch, deception, circumlocution,’’ Mr. Scowcroft said, shaking his head. Mr. Blackwill emerged from the conversation wondering how the United States would ever be able to negotiate with this Iranian government.

“If this man represents the prevailing government opinion in Tehran, we are heading for a massive confrontation with Iran,” he said.

In fact, on the main issue speeding the two countries toward confrontation, Iran’s nuclear program, the president was unwilling to discuss specifics. He insisted that he was fully cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency, even though it had pages of questions his government refused to answer.

Instead, he steered the whole conversation toward Iran’s rights under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, ignoring an effort by Ashton B. Carter, a Harvard professor, to get him to answer whether the nuclear effort was worth the cost to Iranian society.

“The U.S. doesn’t speak for the whole world,’’ Mr. Ahmadinejad responded, noting that at a meeting of nonaligned nations in Cuba over the weekend “118 countries defended the right of Iran to enrich.’’

And as he left, it was with a jab to his hosts. “At the beginning of the session, you said you were an independent group,’’ he said. “But almost everything that I was asked came from a government position.’’ Then he smiled, thanked everyone and left the room with a light step.