Although he didn’t get in the news much, the man who orchestrated the Ahmadinejad visit was none other than domestic animal and ancient wheel expert (and Iranian history specialist) Richard W. Bulliet. Bwog sat down in his posh office in the Middle East Institute to ask him about his reactions to the speech and his reactions to the reactions to the speech. He had a lot to say in between writing an op-ed for The Washington Post and getting ready for a Ramadan iftar with the president of Turkey and Hillary Clinton. Bulliet being Bulliet, his comments used up our tape. Here’s what he said– in the first hour, anyways.
So, you told the Spectator that you think journalism is a “lapsed profession.” What did you mean by that?
Yeah. Well it’s been interesting to look a little bit at the responses to the talk yesterday. The more respected news [media] was accurate. They tended to put the stress on President Bollinger, but it was generally accurately reported, but it was also selective– No one actually covered Ahmadinejad’s speech. They covered his responses to the Q&A. You know, here’s a person who sought an American public forum, and who, even knowing that there was going to be some static, persisted in wanting this forum to happen. And then he chose to give the speech that he did, which was sophomoric and soporific and totally forgettable. It makes you ask the question, why did he do this? What was he thinking? One of my Iran informants said, well, you know, that’s who he is. He’s a religious man, he has a respect for knowledge, and he wanted to sort of say who he was. But from the press point of view, they already knew who he was. He was a Holocaust denying, Jew-hating, atom bomb-throwing evil, evil man. So the fact that his effort to present himself was just totally ignored by the press– well, that’s sort of suggestive of the way in which the press doesn’t distort, necessarily, except by selection.
You do television and you give them 45 minutes and they give you 35 seconds on air. They get to select. If you’re in the media, your job is to be the middle point between producers of content and consumers of content, and you are professionally a judge as to what deserves to cross that frontier between the producer and consumer. What that often means is that you cater to the consumers and what the consumers already know. So here we have what I think is an extremely educational situation where absolutely everybody has the chance to see what was actually said, and then they have the chance to read the news coverage of it. And they find that it isn’t quite what they saw. Whether they will go with that or whether they will just say, well, I guess I’ll just forget about the things that aren’t being repeated in the news because the news must have it right, I don’t know. Or for example, he said, with regard to terrorism, he said, you say we support terrorist organizations, I say you support a terrorist organization. He didn’t name the organization but we all knew what it was– if we know something about Iran [and the Iran-Iraq War]. But most people in the audience didn’t know, so it passed over most of the audience. But the news people also skipped it.
Well I think it’s probably always been the case with non-Western politics that the only piece that is of interest is the piece that directly overlaps with the Western interest. I thought what he had to say about execution and drug dealers was deeply felt. I mean, this is a scourge in Iran, and most of the heroin in the world comes out of Afghanistan and is funneled through Iran, and they cannot close that border because it’s just an impossibly barren, desert area that you just can’t police. And so he said, well, what would you do with drug dealers? You have capital punishment here in the United States…When I’m talking about a lapse of the news media, that’s what I’m talking about. What you get is a war party in this country that is either telling the media what they should concentrate on or the media are unwittingly going along with them.
Is there anything he could have said that would have changed the way he was portrayed?
Well, yeah, but they weren’t things he was going to say. He could have said, since the last time I spoke to the press, I have come to the realization that the Holocaust did occur and six million Jews were killed and it was a massive crime. He could have apologized for ever saying anything to the contrary. Or he could have said, you know, I used to think that the Jewish state was illegitimate but I changed my mind. Of course he could have said things. But the policies that he expresses in these [remarks] are not policies that he invented– they’ve been around since 1979 with the foundation of the state. And they’ve been held by all the intervening presidents, so he can’t exactly… He’s not the ultimate caller of the shots in Iran, he cannot very readily, unilaterally change policies that have been in place for three decades because he found some people someplace else who don’t like those policies.
Iran has been totally misrepresented for 30 years now, and because Americans can’t readily travel to Iran there’s not much counter-information. And because most of the Iranian emigres in this country despise the Islamic Republic, you don’t get to hear the local lobby. So, the result is that distortions usually go uncorrected.
How does that relate to Bush’s comments about the axis of evil?
Ahmadinejad wasn’t president then. At the time of the “axis of evil” speech you have the most liberal of Iran’s presidents. Khatami was the president and it was still the axis of evil because of the people who want to destroy the Islamic Republic of Iran are simply making use of the, let’s say, the modest intellectual stature of Ahmadinejad as if he were the problem. Whereas in fact they think the entire system should be destroyed, and he’s simply the punching bag. But axis of evil precedes Ahmadinejad.
In 1959, I remember sitting on the grass in front of the Harvard field house– there’s a balcony in front of the field house– and there was Fidel Castro speaking to about 10,000 students and others who came to this outdoor event that was sponsored by Harvard. And I remember in the skyline of Harvard stadium you could see sharpshooters up there with rifles to offer protection and so forth. And between then and now [Monday] I don’t think there has been any campus speech of equivalent importance. Even though people now forget Castro’s speech, and he gave one a few days later in Central Park. There’s been an article written recently by a guy who says Castro was practicing populist diplomacy… that he was trying to speak directly to the American people and cut through all the communist-baiting that was coming out of Washington. And it failed. It was a big event, but he did not convince enough people that he was anything other than a stooge for the Soviet Union. Part of the reason was that the domestic lobby was all emigres from Cuba. There were Cubans around– you could ask people about Cuba, but what you’d find was that you had evil communists who were throwing good Cuban businessmen and capitalists out of work. Well, that’s the same thing here– the domestic lobby that you might think would actually be able to reinforce this head of state is actually opposed to him to a substantial amount. I think Ahmadinejad really had something in mind like populist diplomacy…
The events were sort of parallel?
Yeah, the bad guy on campus event… Remember, he rarely leaves Iran. He’s not educated out of the country and not educated at a terribly advanced level. I thought it was very patronizing [of Bollinger] to sort of chide him for being poorly educated… It was sort of unnecessary. But I think he [Ahmadinejad] had the thought that the halls of ivy are some sort of place for philosophical rumination, and that his speech would be a speech appropriate to an academic setting, as if he were giving an acceptance speech for some sort of honorary degree or something like that. He should have known better, he should have been warned by the local [New York-based] people because they knew that Bollinger was making that introduction.
Did his advisers brief him in general about what was going on here, about the protests?
I have no idea… I talked to the ambassador [Mohammad Khazaee] fairly extensively, and then the head of the Iranian division of the American foreign ministry came and had a long talk with me and [SIPA dean] John Coatsworth about things… The ambassador was very offended by some of the Columbia responses on things, but once–
Was Ahmadinejad aware of the student protesters?
No, no, they didn’t see anything, and never could see anything. I had told them that it would be arranged so that he could come and go without every encountering any protest. He wouldn’t see anything, he wouldn’t hear anything. That’s what the Secret Service wanted and Columbia security wanted. From a protest point of view… like most protests… like when there’s a big protest in Washington, the President’s at Camp David– protests are more for the good of the protesters. But I think in this case [the ambassador] should have briefed him… If the ambassador had been here a long time it would have been different. Because he just presented his credentials in July. The other guy [Javad Zarif] had been in this country before and worked for the World Bank. So, I don’t know… The speech sounded like one that had not been written for him. Maybe Ahmadinejad wrote the speech himself. I think he would have liked to have felt like he was being accepted as a fellow intellectual.
Were those aspects of the speech lost in translation?
The translator was really very good. She came with him from Iran. She’s very, very good. Everyone agreed that she presented not only the words but also the tone and the inflection. So what you heard was really what he had to say… [The delegation and Ahmadinejad] really wanted to come to the university, and said that if obstacles were put in their way they would adapt. And then he seemed surprised that there were obstacles. I reflect on it because I don’t know whether I fell down on the job and did not adequately represent the situation here. On the other hand, nothing that I had seen tipped me off as to the vehemence of Bollinger’s speech. Although I thought John Coatsworth would [deliver a speech like that. And the delegation knew to expect criticism].
What did you think about Bollinger’s introduction?
I think that the sensitivity in Iran about being friendly towards guests is so deeply and profoundly felt that a lot of the Iranians, and other Middle Easterners too, to a lesser extent, will think Ahmadinejad really came out ahead in the entire encounter because the sympathy for him because he was treated badly by someone who should have showed him hospitality. So, some things that pleased very strongly engaged people in this country will have the opposite effect on strongly engaged people in the Middle East. But it’s hard to predict in any detail. I sort of wonder whether if [when] theres another speaker we disagree with, will students go to the person doing the introduction and say, we want you to, in introducing him, to challenge him on the following points. Will they try and use Bollinger’s speech as a model for how to receive people at Columbia? So that if you don’t have someone that everyone agrees with, that you should make very clear at the outset that there is hostility… It’s there to be a precedent if someone wants to do it.
Some people have criticized the fact that the president of Bangladesh is coming on Friday.
Has anyone been hanged in Bangladesh? Probably. Has anyone been abused and mistreated? Probably. Are there political prisoners? Yes. The thing is if you have benign introducers who say now I want to present such and such, then will that person then be criticized for not challenging them? It’s very hard to know. I’ve never witnessed anything like what happened yesterday… Certainly the indictment that he [Bollinger] gave sounded like something written for Bush. He mentioned everything in a sort of neocon indictment. In some cases he seemed to indicate that he wasn’t aware that the guy who calls the shots in Iran is not Ahmadinejad.
But then there’s the broader picture that I find quite fascinating. If you build someone up as the new Hitler and then you say, wait, you’re not Hitler– I knew Hitler and you’re no Hitler. He [Ahmadinejad] doesn’t have a huge army ready to launch, he doesn’t have an outspoken, explicit hatred of Jews and want to annihilate them. All those things that are associated with Hitler don’t fit. In a sense, a possibility of this event, and particularly Bollinger’s belittling of him– if you would belittle him because he is apparently, in truth, a little man, do you in fact take a step back from war? Does this undermine the neocon case for war because for Condoleezza Rice now to say the smoking gun is a mushroom cloud detonated by Ahmadinejad would make you say, him? Is this the face that launched a thousand ships and toppled the towers of Ilium? But that’s why the media take is important, because everyone [has] a visual impression of what kind of man this is. And if he is petty and ridiculous and uneducated and so forth then why is he considered the scourge of God? The person who will launch the world into some sort of nuclear annihilation? He will be retired from office, as will Bush, before there is even a chronological possibility of Iran having nuclear bombs. He’s not going to order and attack on anybody. He could be re-elected, but the way things are going he almost certainly won’t be elected.
So, to be on the verge of war because of something that might happen after the current principals are no longer in charge of their respective governments really seems, well, stupid, and almost criminal in that you could end up killing a lot of people for something that ultimately is going to have no reason. My feeling, what I wanted, was to see to what degree this event can serve as a brake on the push towards war. Personally, I don’t think there’s going to be a war. But many people do, and sometimes thinking it will happen makes it happen… What kind of a triumph would it be to bring down Ahmadinejad? There isn’t any statue of him. He doesn’t have any personality to be cultish about. People have wanted to go to war ever since the Iran hostage crisis almost thirty years ago.
One of the lines is that no one since Hitler has threatened the existence of the Jews in the way that Ahmadinejad does. Therefore, he is Hitler redux. But, in 1967, at the Khartoum Resolution, eight Arab countries signed this declaration of the three no’s- no recognition [of Israel], no peace, no negotiation. For 24 years, that resolution held that eight Arab states denied the existence of Israel and were pledged to try and destroy Israel. That ended at the Madrid conference in 1991. So when you say nobody since Hitler has taken this extreme position, that’s literally untrue. A bunch of leaders have taken that position and none of them have been barred from speaking– some of them have gone to the White House and been received in the Rose Garden and so forth and so on.
A year or so ago I asked a head of a neocon organization why we have this lapse of memory as to the fact that Arabs wanted to destroy Israel and never recognized Israel. And he said that they decided to give the Arabs a pass on this because…if they skip the Arabs then they can compare Ahmadinejad to Hitler and have a war. But to compare Ahmadinejad to Abd al-Karim Qassim, who cares? To compare him to Gamal Abdul Nasser, no one really remembers. But you compare him to Hitler and you’ve got a hook onto a mythic history in which you can figure him as a threat to the entire world… This kind of manipulation of history in order to sway popular passions in the direction of war is so profoundly wrong and against the American interest.
Why do you think the U.S. wants a war?
I would say that, to the degree that the neoconservatives have a strong commitment to the security of Israel, to guarantee Israel against a hypothetical threat some years in the future. I also think it goes back to that it would avenge the humiliation of the hostage crisis and destroy the Islamic Republic. And then you also have economic interests; all those businesses [that] were closed out of Iran for the last 30 years, by sanctions, would be able to go back and make contracts to buy and sell goods with a population of 80 plus million people. That’s a big market. There are plenty of reasons… but in order to make it happen you have to create a jingoistic [line]. And that’s what’s going on with a radical distortion of history and current affairs.
You have a big chunk of the [Middle Eastern history] specialist community that starts every sentence with the word Palestine. And they have successfully from 1967 onwards, partly through the extraordinary skills of Yassir Arafat, to turn this side-show into a great world concern so that it’s a given in many, many quarters in the Arab world that all problems stem from the Palestine question. That’s a great sell. Certainly it’s succeeded on this campus. But another portion of the specialist community certainly don’t buy that. They think of things like globalization, that that’s the issue… So the specialist community doesn’t speak with one voice because there are a number of different positions that are very, very deeply held. The people who actually determine policy work very hard, much harder than I do, and once they have decided what they are inclined to recommend, they’ll look around for published material support. And if there’s a hearing they’ll call in someone who wrote and article or a book, and you go in and feel flattered because for an hour some senator will look at you… It’s utterly ephemeral.
What about the homosexuality in Iran comment?
Well, read Joseph Massad… I don’t think Ahmadinejad knows who Massad is. But I’m sure he knows there are homosexuals in Iran. Religiously, it’s frowned upon, but he knows it exists. The really crucial question that he would have to ask is what does he think an American homosexual is? Did he see a movie with a drag queen in it? Or something in which homosexuality is celebrated as a form of difference? What does he think American homosexuality is? Because what he said in one sense could be arguably true, but on the other hand, it sounded so stupid– it helped to create this image of a nincompoop that I think may be helpful in stepping back from a war scenario. Hitler said, I want to kill the homosexuals, Ahmadinejad says, we don’t have any! [laughs]
How did Kian Tajbakhsh factor into the arrangement?
Well, it was not a quid pro quo… [I told the ambassador] that it would be embarrassing for President Bollinger to welcome a president who he has written to on behalf on an alumnus– He proceeded to lecture me, and I said, I’m not talking about anything humanitarian, you have a word that covers it in Farsi, parti-bazi, which is, well, party like political party and then play…party politics. I said, this is parti-bazi…
And he was released.
Yeah, he was… I also put the nephew (or is it son?) who goes here… of another prisoner on my list of invites.
Interview by Katie Reedy