Iran gets Foxy

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Newsflash! Columbia was on Fox again today, for bringing the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations to speak. A little Bwog inside scoop: he almost went the way of his President, when the Law School withdrew their offer of space. Fortunately for Towards Reconciliation, the Muslim Student Association stepped up by donating pre-reserved space in Lerner, and the Columbia Musical Theater Society very menschily agreed to silence their rehearsal in Roone (in exchange for free pizza from SDA). Bwog editor Chris Szabla has this extensive report.

zarifJawad Zarif has spent considerable time in the US; a graduate of the University of Denver and San Francisco State, he arrived in New York in 1982 to obtain a doctorate from SIPA only to discover the school did not give out PhDs (he retrospectively claims it was Columbia that channeled him into diplomacy). His address began, then, with an observation regarding notions of Iran Zarif had encountered in this country. “Iran is a misunderstood country in the US,” he claimed. It is one with a long history, one that understands the fleeting nature of dominance. As such, it has been heavily influenced by the 200 years it experienced digesting foreign impositions — including those of Iraq, which, he noted, launched its 1980s invasion with substantial foreign encouragement. The perception this foreign influence engendered, Zarif continued, was that Iran could not trust others.

Nevertheless, this lack of trust never meant, he noted, that Iran had any need or desire to act aggressively toward its neighbors — it had no real needs outside its borders. In fact, Zarif asserted, never in 250 years had Iran really threatened or invaded another country, in contrast to Iraq’s wars against Iran and Kuwait. In fact, it has been active in stablizing the region, as the consequences of instability had only pejorative consequences for Iran — the millions of refugees it has had to accept from Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. Zarif noted that Iran had been active in stabilizing the government of Tajikistan, mediating the dispute between Armenia and Azerbijan, and helping create what he called an “acceptable government” for Afghanistan, and was the first country to recognize the new government in Iraq. Accusations that Iran was interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs, he claimed, were the inventions of Washington, and are contradicted by Iraqis on the  ground. Iran, he explained, naturally supports a government composed of the former opposition to Saddam Hussein, individuals it was the only government to support in earlier decades.

Zarif concluded his address by noting that this concern with stability required the understanding that change could not be imposed from above, but must be homegrown. Providing an indigenous model of a successful democracy is the best way forward; he observed that the Iraq Study Group’s report, released earlier that day, repeated the same basic error: the US was attempting to decide the best course of the region for others. Its hypocrisy in this regard, however, has been evident in its policy toward Iran’s nuclear program, he observed. 30 years ago, when Iran was under the Shah, the US promoted Iran as a responsible nuclear power, whereas today it cannot stomach the same. Zarif drew his comments to a close by noting that he personally believed that the possession of nuclear weapons were detrimental to Iran’s security but that their numbers should be reduced through cooperation rather than confrontation.

The polished sangfroid the ambassador displayed during his address was decreasingly in evidence during the contentious question and answer period, however. Several students asked Zarif to clarify the treatment of other minorities in Iran and address whether the country was really a democracy. One student asked specifically about the alleged execution of two homosexuals in the country; Zarif responded with a discussion of how religious societies were governed by religious norms, which were its community’s decisions about how they wished to be governed. In such societies, he explained, the private domain is not the government’s responsibility, but the public expression of private beliefs is. He noted this is true of religious societies other than Iran, and gave the brief example of Orthodox Jews protesting homosexuality on Second Avenue today. Iran, he noted, had interpreted Islamic law to allow for genetic research, cloning, and sex change operations. In many respects, he concluded, it was less of a religiously-determined society than the US. “Thank you for your very legalistic explanation,” replied the student who had asked for but not received a direct answer concerning the executions. On the question of democracy, Zarif argued that Iran was in fact a lively one; even its religious leaders were indirectly chosen by the people, who, in the country’s most fiercely-contested elections, selected those who then determined those leaders in turn.

Other questions dealt with Iran’s foreign affairs, most notably its conduct toward Lebanon and Hezbollah. “Providing assistance for people fighting foreign occupation is legal,” he asserted, “because foreign occupation is illegal under international law”. Nevertheless, he noted, while the US did train groups that could be classified as terrorist in many situations, Iran had never sponsored such organizations as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. “Don’t consume everything you read on Fox News,” he scolded. After several interruptions by a very insistent woman, a security officer demanded the serial questioner stop, and conspicuously sat by her side for the rest of the event.

Another exchange involved the question of how Zarif could reconcile Iran’s “threats toward Israel” with its “desire for stability”. Zarif responded by noting that, even while the previous president (Khatami, considered a moderate) was in power, Iran was receiving threats from Israel. He made the observation, to be repeated later in the night, that while Iran had not acted belligerently toward its neighbors for centuries, Israel had made repeated explicit threats toward many countries and carried out military action against others. Indeed, he claimed, while Iran had never threatened another member of the UN with military force, the US and Israel could not say the same. He noted that few had picked up on Shimon Peres’ remark that Iran should be wiped off the map, and that Iran, in fact, not only had the largest Jewish population of any country in the Middle East outside Israel and a Hebrew language radio station, but that at least seat in Parliament was in fact permanently reserved for Jews alone.

The most provocative question of the night, however, concerned Zarif’s personal beliefs on the Holocaust. Jordan Hirsch, C ’10, asked whether the ambassador personally believed six million Jews had died in the Holocaust. Zarif replied by noting that the Second World War had been a catastrophe, and that many had died, including Jews. “But what did the Palestinians have to do with that?” he then asked rhetorically. A moderator asked if they could get on with other questions and the crowd shouted “no!”, continuing to press Zarif. He claimed they did not want to hear about Palestinians, to which many asked what they had to do with the Holocaust question. Zarif’s replied that they had been suffering due to the use of the Holocaust as a justification for Israeli policies.

The ambassador remained calm and collected, even during this outbreak. “I respect your right to laugh at me,” he said, as some snickered at some of his more unorthodox arguments. At some point during the exchange, however, Zarif guffawed. “This tells you a lot about freedom of expression here,” he said. It was unclear whether he meant Columbia or the U.S. as a whole, but one student grabbed the opportunity for a last word in what had by then seemed to devolve into a shouting match. “It’s a lot better in Iran!” he shouted.

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  1. Anonymous  

    "My friend, Don't consume everything that has been said by Fox News"

    I love how the audience applauds to that comment.
    Describe this color in one lowercase word.

  2. hmmm  

    So how did Fox reconcile their intense hatred for both Iran and Columbia? They could have bombed campus and taken out two targets?

  3. Fox's  

    obsession with Columbia is only slightly greater than BWOG's obsession with Fox's obsession with Columbia.


  4. what  

    a terrible photograph.

  5. Bari

    Szabla gets Jordan Hirsch's question, the most important question of the night, wrong.
    The exchange went like this:
    Hirsch: Do you personally believe six million Jews died in the Holocaust?
    Zarif: A lot of people, including Jews, died and that is a crime. But the real question, the question you don't want me to talk about, is what about the Palestinians?

    In general, Szabla's report does not give the reader even a bit of the sense of how absurd the evening was.

    • Chris Szabla  

      Bari, thanks for your comment. Somehow, during the editing of the piece, the sentence paraphrasing Hirsch's question and Zarif's response was blended together. It's been corrected to read more accurately now.

      I'm not sure how you would have preferred to convey the "absurdity" of the evening, however. In the Spec article you characterised the event as "a study in the art of avoidance"...I think you're correct, but that's practically what's to be expected from the mouth of a diplomat or any political figure. It's not hard to imagine, then, why Iran's representative, having to steer between President Ahmedinejad's provocations and the viewpoints of a mostly hostile US audience, would have to resort, sometimes, to not really answering the question. Nevertheless, I felt that his answers were, in general, more candid than one would expect in such situations; they were certainly preferable (from the point of view of someone who wants to learn how the Iranian government thinks) to those characteristic of Bush administration press conferences when questions put to Donald Rumsfeld concerning WMDs in Iraq, for example, were answered with bizarre verse formulations like "there are known knowns...and there are unknown knowns", etc.

      My aim in writing this piece, then, was to capture Zarif's illuminating responses to challenging questions regarding Iranian policy, not to really give a sense of the mood of the evening or to accuse Zarif of some kind of skillful duplicity. It's meant to be read in tandem with the Spec and Fox News articles, not in place of them, and to simply fill in the gaps with some of Zarif's telling exegeses.

      I will admit, though, that I may have committed serious errors even in the context of this approach; if I have, I invite you to either point them out specifically or to post your own version of events in order to give those who were not present the widest range of perspectives possible to draw from.

  6. Anonymous  

    Come on people, stop being idealists and look at the world from a realistic perspective for once. You ask the ambassador of Iran whether he believes in the Holocaust...that's great. Except, you already know the answer to that question, because you KNOW Ahmadinejad is an anti-semite who doesn't "believe" in it. So why, WHY would you expect one of his employees to answer any differently ? If he wants to keep his job and his head on his shoulders, regardless of his personal beliefs, he obviously will not disagree with the views of the country he represents.
    Why are you so utterly surprised that he diverts all questions in order to push his own agenda for the night? Hell, our own government uses the same tactics at every press conference, and you expect an IRANIAN politician to be any different?
    I agree that yeah it's a great thing to be able to have the opportunity to grill a controversial politician on your home turf, but the least you can do is realize that the very nature of politics today precludes you ever getting a straight answer on any mildly controversial topic.

    • You really

      can't say it any better than that

      • Absolutely  

        agreed. My question is why would you ask such a thing in the first place, aside for the desire to probably stir up some controversy? He answered the question just as you would expect a politician in his shoes would. Big surprise. Put it into context people.

        • Jordan  

          Why ask the question Absolute? Not to provoke. I did not mean for the audience to react the way it did. Better for him to answer and hurt himself that way.

          But should I have left it unsaid, and allowed the Ambassador to escape the room without confronting his country's Holocaust denial? I'm sorry, but I could not let that happen. Just because we know the answer, again, does not mean we should not demand it from him. This was no setup question--this question is easily answerable, and should be easily answerable. I felt obligated to expose Zarif.

    • Jordan  

      One would hope that the Holocaust question I asked would be easily answerable. It's a simple fact after all. Why not just say yes? You are correct, 'Moderate,' I did not honestly expect him to say yes. I would have been very, very happy if he did. As you your question of why would anyone expect one of Ahmadinejad's employees to answer differently, quite a few pundits have stated that they think Ahmadinejad's ravings are not official Iranian policy, but simply his own madness. I asked this question, one one level, to see if that was the case. I also asked it to see if the Ambassador might attempt to whitewash his remarks for an American audience. I'm sure he thought he did whitewash it, but no one in the room mistook his comments--they were denial.

      Indeed, just because we may have known, 'Moderate," that Zarif would deny, doesn't take away from the fact that his answer is still shocking and disgusting. In front of Columbia University students, in New York City, the ambassador of a United Nations member state openly denied the Holocaust.

      That's a big deal. And I could not let the Iranian Ambassador come to Columbia and skate through a forum like that. These people have to be confronted and challenged, regardless of realistic politics. Not only that, his routine of collected, diplomatic calm fell to pieces--so much for his rational answers to all those questions. Anyway, that's all I did, and I believe I accomplished it in a very civil manner.

  7. keep in mind  

    The average Iranian does not deny the holocaust and its numbers at all. I'd be willing to bet you that Ahmadinejad and Zarif both know exactly what happened, but Ahmadinejad is a puppet of the Mullahs, who are the embodiment of evil. Zarif also has to be a talking head. Of course he wouldn't give a straight answer to that question. At least he half referred to it as a genocide, I think that's more than Ahmadinejad has ever called it.

    Jordan I'm glad you had the balls to ask the question regardless, and mod(e)*rate, you are absolutely right...also your alias is pretty funny.

  8. Umm  

    "A large of people were died, were murdered in the second world war. A large number of them were Jews. That's a crime. Any crime against humanity must be rejected. And we reject any crime. Genocide is a major crime, and we reject it."

    Sounds like denial to me.

    • to clarify  

      He did at least state that a large number of Jews died, referencing it as a Genocide. That is as close to a Yes as you will ever get from the Iranian government! Pose that question to Ahmadinejad, and he too will say something about the Palestinians, but also about how the true number needs to be investigated. Truly believing that the Holocaust didn't happen is on par with thinking OJ was innocent--no educated person could possibly believe it (and Zarif is US educated). Regardless of what this man believes, he has to spew the ignorant denial platitudes of the Iranian government because it's his job.

      I believe when he says "we reject any crime", he means we don't support committing that kind of crime, not "we reject its existence". That's what I got from the video. Have you seen the video? Because I can see how it could be read differently just in writing.

      • Sorry  

        Sorry, I don't directly disagree with you. I was being sarcastic.

        I'd like to note that emphasizing the non-role of the Palestinians' in the execution of the Holocaust does not taint a discussion as Holocaust-denial. Considering that Holocaust is often seen as one of the pillars of Israeli nationalism (granted in retrospect as considerable migration occurred before WW2), such a response emphasizing the non-role of the Palestinians is valid.

        • Jordan  

          I strongly disagree with you Sorry. My question was explicit and straightforward. It called on one thing, and one thing only. A factual question. Does he believe that six million Jews died in the Holocaust? There is little room there to say, "maybe, but the Palestinians..." Another question might have given him legitimate room to respond that way. And I don't mean to say that his point is completely illegitimate--thats a different matter entirely. It just wasn't at all related to the question, in any way shape or form.

        • haha  

          You said taint.
          Like perineum.

      • Jordan  

        It's important to note, in terms of clarification, that his original answer, quite simply was: "I believe many atrocities occurred during the Second World War." Notice that he did not say Holocaust there, did not mention Jews, and left it deliberately vague. Only when prompted by the audence did he mention Jews, saying "a large number of people died... a large number of them were Jews." I did appreciate this 'admission' from him. You are probably right, that's as close as it gets for the Iranians. But that's still totally unacceptable, and it amounts to denial nonetheless.

        Having experienced his response firsthand, and having seen the video afterwards, I'm led to believe that his response that Iranians "reject any crime," is only meant as a segway into his point about the Palestinians--that any crime is bad, but this crime of the Holocaust is no more unique of an atrocity than any other. Again, that is denial.

  9. for that question

    If it's anything but "yes," it's no.

    Those who believe that this is to be expected out of an Iranian government official have it completely wrong. This is an incredibly weak excuse. This guy's office isn't in Tehran--it's in New York. This man is a representative to the United Nations, which should be one of the world's shining beacons of stability, cooperation and peace. I find it incredibly significant that any diplomat representing fifty million people to the world's governing body would say things this offensive and ridiculous--regardless of the government he's representing.

    • pretty arrogant.  

      if you're a western-educated person, government official or not, speaking "your mind" over there will decrease your expected lifespan.

      Admitting that genocide was committed against Jews might seem trivial to us, but it's something that he might regret saying when he goes back to Iran.

  10. the issue  

    I think Iran is adamant about addressing the consequences of the Holocaust, particularly its subsequent use as a rallying cry for the creation of Israel, whatever the consequences. Zarif, I think, made this clear when he answered the question that made me think he probably believed in the Holocaust, but had to phrase his answer sufficiently carefully as to not necessarily contradict Ahmedinejad. When he moved on to the Palestinian question, it was evident that this was the primary reason why Iran would ever want to bring up the Holocaust to begin with, and he's at least somewhat right that while what happened 60 years ago has been played out again and again, there's been far less critical examination about how the historiography of the Holocaust has shaped contemporary geopolitics, particularly in the Middle East. Which aspect of the Holocaust is really more relevant today?

  11. UN is bad  

    You cannot be serious about the UN. It's one of the "shining beacons of stability, cooperation and peace"?? Are you referencing the same UN who sent peacekeepers down to Africa to rape little girls? The UN is a disgrace. The vast majority of the UN is anti-Israel, so Zarif's statements fit in just perfectly into the UN's overall sentiments.

    I think #20 is right for several reasons. Like I said before, if you're in the UN (and you're not Israel or the US and a handful of others), you're probably going to spew Israel hatred. The Mullahs in Iran would not have a UN representative who actually answered these kinds of questions directly--remember, the Mullahs really run the show in Iran. 19 also has a point--Iran uses every opportunity it can to just talk about Israel. I'm an Iranian (non-Jew) who supports Israel because I wish my relatives in Iran could be treated by the Iranian government as well as the Israelis are treated by theirs. Remember, the Palestinians were rejected by every other Arab nation in the area. It's funny how now, other Muslims nations rally around them as though they really like the Palestinians...they don't.

  12. Jordan  

    First, to "the issue": you ask which aspect of the Holocaust is really more important today. I would argue, based on your own logic, that the first aspect of actual Holocaust belief is incredibly more important in geopolitics.

    Why? You contend that the Holocaust played a direct role in the creation of Israel and the plight of the Palestinians. Fine, that's a matter of opinion. But if you look at it in terms of geopolitics, denying the most horrible genocide of them all opens the door to even more genocide. I don't see Iran taking any action to stop genocide in Darfur, for example. When you deny the Holocaust, it only leads you to allow--and, dare i say--commit, another one just like it.

    In response to pretty arrogant: you may be right that he would decrease his lifepan if he answered that he believes in the Holocaust (which I'm hardly convinced he does). But it's still a very sad commentary on the situation in Iran, where he would get his head cut off for accepting history.

    • the issue  

      I think we all agree Holocaust denial is bad. The questions are- why does it matter what Iran thinks about it (as if it's going to save Darfur), does it really desensitize Iran to genocide (I haven't heard of Iran committing any lately...or ever), why the example of the Holocaust in particular needs to be kept current in order to prevent current and future genocides (what about other examples- the Armenians? Native Americans in the US, even? those seem more akin to situations like Darfur anyway, which are more sporadic than the very systematic nature of the Holocaust), and, most importantly, why putting the immediacy of the Holocaust slightly onto the backburner in order to speak of its later effects on the creation of Israel and the expulsion of the Palestinians is necessary to achieve any of the benefits you mentioned.

      It seems to me that there's room both to talk about the Holocaust as such and the Holocaust as it has played out in historiography. Iran may be pressing only one of these issues, but it would be equally wrong of us only to emphasize the other. If anything, observing how past wrongs could potentially be used as justifications for future human rights violations or even atrocities is just as instructive for preventing such crimes; just as the victimhood mentality engendered in places like germany and hungary by the post-WWI treaties contributed to a lot of brutal revisionist and retributionary interethnic slaughter in WWII, so too MIGHT the victimhood mentality engendered by the Holocaust have contributed to crimes during the creation of Israel. if anything, we have an obligation to condemn these uses, and ensure that the Holocaust is mourned rather than used in continual political tug-o-war, which it will be until its role in postwar history is acknowledged.

  13. correcting #21  

    my bad. I didn't read that thoroughly enough, and now I realize I disagree with some of what #19 is saying. My point was a little more sarcastic than his--Iran literally does take any question and just turn it in to a question of the legitimacy of Israel's existence. It's annoying. The Holocaust was certainly a large factor in Israel's legitimacy, but I say that any nation that provides its citizens with civil liberties, as Israel does, is fine by me. Iran cannot claim to do the same for its own citizens.

  14. I can't type  

    arrghhh I wish I could type correctly the first time. I meant to say "The Holocaust was certainly a large factor in the creation of the state of Israel". I do not mean to question Israel's legitimacy, I find it legitimate.

  15. Lawschoolwha  

    " ...when the Law School withdrew their offer of space..."

    Nice find Bwog.You know, this school is really disappointing with maneuvers like this. They jump at the chance to protect the Minutemen's right to speak on campus but anything that is considered anti-semetic they try this behind the scenes crap. Bollinger is the biggest culprit. What a hypocritical sell out. You're either good with free speech, however potentially offensive, or not.

    And bringing up the Palestinian issue, considering how Israel's existence and the displacement and occupation of that population is justified upon the atrocities of the Nazis towards Europe's Jews, is absolutely not avoidance no matter how many people want to dismiss it. Palestinian people are still wondering what they did to deserve that or what they had to do with the genocide on European soil, why one monstrous black mark of ethnic cleansing justifies yet another.

  16. iran and genocide  

    Iran has never committed any genocide per se, but they don't hesitate to hang homosexuals and stone prostitutes or raped women. That's certainly not a systematic genocide like the Holocaust was, and to claim it as equivalent would lessen the severity of what happened to the Jews, but it's a lack of human rights nonetheless.

    But let's keep in mind--it's 2006 and this crap still happens in Iran. I'm always so nervous when I go back to Iran to visit my relatives, and have to be overly cautious so as to not get arrested for no reason at all.

    Ideally, those politicians who want to question the legitimacy of Israel could at least first say directly "6 million jews died in the holocaust, but we'd still like to talk about why this is justification for the creation of a Jewish state." That's a more civil debate that at least addresses historical fact, and unfortunately Iran will never engage in such civil debate until the religious government is eradicated.

    • I think  

      "6 million jews died in the holocaust, but we'd still like to talk about why this is justification for the creation of a Jewish state" was Zarif's position; it was unfortunate that, despite his obviously diplomatic equivocations (which really only consisted of not using the words "six million" or "holocaust" but rather implying it), those attending the event seemed unwilling to even listen to this.

      are women really stoned in iran? I'd like to see evidence- I've only heard of this happening in rural pakistan and some parts of africa.

  17. editing #29  

    (the religious government in Iran, that is)

  18. about stoning

    It's certainly true, I'll try to find more. By the way--"Iran-e-Azad" means "A Free Iran" in Farsi. Here's one more:

    Just google "women stoned in Iran" and you will find many hits. It's very disturbing. It's not as severe as the Taliban, mind you, but absolutely happens.

  19. ...  

    is toward reconciliation the same group that sent me like 2353242345234 emails last week?

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