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.