The opening week of the United Nations’ 65th session was a busy one for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In addition to giving his annual address before the U.N. General Assembly and granting interviews with everyone from ABC’s Charlie Rose to Fox News’ Eric Shaw, he also found time to meet with groups of Iranian-Americans, Muslim leaders, academics and members of think tanks.
On Sept. 21, the annual U.N.-declared International Day of Peace, he held a particularly interesting meeting at a midtown hotel with some 130 members of the U.S. peace and social justice movements, including major figures in the Black activist community.
The invited guests included leading members of most of the major U.S. anti-war coalitions and organizations, including the International Action Center, A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, National Assembly to End U.S. Wars & Occupations, United National Anti-War Committee, Code Pink, Fellowship of Reconciliation, United for Peace & Justice, Al-Awda-New York and Women Against Military Madness of Minneapolis.
Also, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark; Just Foreign Policy Director Robert Naiman; MRZine.org Editor Yoshie Furuhashi; David Swanson of War Is A Crime.org; and Kenneth Stone of Hamilton, Ontario, representing the Hamilton Coalition to Stop the War and the Canadian Peace Alliance.
Organizations that specifically focus on Iran included the Campaign Against Sanctions & Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII), Women for Peace & Justice in Iran, StopWaronIran.org and the American Iranian Friendship Committee. But while the president had met before, in 2008, with representatives of the peace movement, this was his first real opportunity to meet with longtime leaders in the Black struggle.
Poet/activist Amiri Baraka, a near-legendary figure in the Black liberation movement, was there with his wife Amina Baraka. Ramona Africa, a leading supporter of U.S. political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and Minister of Communication in The MOVE Organization, came with two other MOVE members.
Also Cynthia McKinney, the former U.S. Congresswoman and 2008 Green Party presidential candidate; New York civil rights attorney Alton Maddox and his wife; longtime North Carolina community activist Shafia M’Balia; Washington, D.C., minister/activist Rev. Graylan Scott-Hagler; Million Worker March Movement Northeast Region Co-organizer Brenda Stokely; Pan African News Wire Editor Abayomi Azikiwe; and Boston Rosa Parks Human Rights Day Committee leader Anthony Van Der Meer.
After a traditional Persian meal, buffet-style, the guests moved to a conference room where Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, welcomed the activists, noting that some had come from as far away as Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
Six activists, including three African-American women, were invited to give opening remarks: Cynthia McKinney, who was introduced by the ambassador as “a greatest defender of the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination;” Ramsey Clark; Shafeah M’Balia; Brenda Stokely; Sara Flounders, co-director of the International Action Center; and this writer, representing CASMII.
Some 16 other activists then took the podium, offering comments and asking questions of the president.
Finally it was time to hear from President Ahmadinejad. Consistently caricatured in the Western media, the former university professor and mayor of Tehran comes across in person as an intelligent, thoughtful and deeply religious leader trying to find a common ground with his audience, while upholding the right of his country to be treated with respect in the international arena.
“We have a treasure chest full of views,” the president opened, referring to his guests’ presentations. “I agree with everything you have said, and therefore you have spoken from my heart also. Now I will speak in my own way.”
The talk the president gave carried the same message he presented the next evening at a dinner with 57 academics, former diplomats, authors and members of various think tanks, and again the following day before the General Assembly.
His argument was that, for hundreds of years, the dominant system of capitalism has wreaked havoc on the earth, resulting in the genocide of indigenous peoples, the enslavement and exploitation of millions of Africans and constant wars and oppression.
At the same time, the present system of what he called “world management,” in which a handful of countries hold veto power over global policies through their permanent positions on the U.N. Security Council, has produced an unequal and undemocratic system in which poorer countries are at the mercy of the more affluent.
As a solution to this system of global economic and political inequality, the president called for a new world order in which profit-driven capitalism would be replaced with a system of mutual respect, cooperation and love for humanity, one in which collective decision-making power would reside in the U.N. General Assembly, with each country having an equal say.
Originally scheduled for two hours, the meeting was extended another 30 minutes. According to one member of the Iranian Mission, President Ahmadinejad and Ambassador Khazaee were “very pleased” to be able to hear directly from people in the peace movement and from a “cross-section” of the U.S. public, rather than just the “political elite.”
As for the activists, some of the most enthusiastic reactions came from the Black leaders.
“I thought the meeting was a good opportunity to clarify Iran’s position in relation to the United States,” commented Amiri Baraka. “We only hear what the U.S. government thinks about Iran, but it’s important for us to hear from Iran. So it was an opportunity to have a meaningful presence in that whole dialogue, that whole clash, so that people who have been fighting against imperialism will have more substantial positions on U.S.-Iranian relations.”
“The meeting with President Ahmadinejad went well,” agreed Ramona Africa, the sole adult survivor of the 1985 police bombing of a MOVE household in Philadelphia, an aerial assault that resulted in the deaths of 11 people, including five children. “He got to hear from us, people who are not mislead by U.S. propaganda or the news media, and we got to hear from him directly. This is a good thing.”
Abayomi Azikiwe, who is active in struggles against police brutality in Detroit, had a similar reaction.
“I thought the significance of the meeting was that the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran had an opportunity to hear directly from people from the oppressed communities, from anti-war activists, about the plight of the people of the United States,” he said.
“He heard directly about how they felt not only about conditions here, but about relations between the United States and Iran. Most of the speakers spoke in solidarity with the people of Iran. They saw that the people of Iran had been oppressed by and are still under attack by the U.S., just as African-Americans and other people opposed to U.S. policy are under attack here in the United States.”
On Sept. 24, the president met with recently freed American hiker Sarah Shourd and her mother, Nina Shourd. According to the Reuters news agency, Ms. Shourd described the meeting as a “very human encounter, very personal.”
“I’m very thankful for this and hopeful it will make a difference for Shane and Josh,” she was quoted as saying, referring to her two fellow hikers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who remain in prison in Tehran. The three were detained in July 2009 near Iran’s border with Iraq, an area that has seen recent military attacks on Iranian forces by the PKK, an anti-Iranian military organization.
Under the Iranian judicial system, the president has no power to interfere in court proceedings. However, President Ahmadinejad has expressed his desire that the three hikers be treated “leniently.”