Lehigh students meet with Iranian ambassador J. Javad Zarif.
At a time of growing tension between the U.S. and Iran over nuclear proliferation, 29 students from Lehigh had the rare opportunity to meet directly with Iranian ambassador J. Javad Zarif at his U.N. offices Thursday and engage in a free-form, 90-minute discussion on international politics.
The session was arranged through the Lehigh-U.N. partnership
, and came about as the result of the university’s status as one of only six universities in the world to be fully recognized by the U.N. Department of Public Information as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), said Bill Hunter, director of the program.
During the meeting, Zarif offered detailed responses on topics that ranged from nuclear proliferation, the escalating energy crisis, religion and ethnic minority groups in Iran, the potential for democracy in the Middle East, Iranian culture, and the political landscape of the United States.
But he saved his most pointed remarks for a response to a question about Iran being named part of the “axis of evil” in President George Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address.
“More than fearful, I would say that the Iranian people were indignant,” he said in measured tones. “They felt betrayed. I certainly felt betrayed.”
Zarif said that the “axis of evil” designation came about shortly after he returned from the Bonn conference, where he worked directly with the U.S. on the organization of a new government in Afghanistan.
“And then I receive this statement,” he said. “Basically, what we had was a recognition, by Iran, that our behavior and our attempts to be helpful didn’t carry very much weight.”
"We are far from perfect"
Zarif answered students' questions.
He also offered a critical analysis of the concept of democracy in the U.S., citing the 2004 presidential campaign.
“We are far from perfect,” he said. “But if you compare the Iranian situation to any of its neighbors, we have more democracy in Iran than in our entire neighborhood. We’ve had 27 elections in 27 years. Granted, our candidates have been vetted. But in our last president’s election, the choices available to voters in our country were greater than the choices available to you when you elected your last president. Between John Kerry and Bush, the difference was far less.”
To students who questioned Zarif on the escalating tension between his country and the U.S. over Iran’s presumed ability to produce nuclear weapons, he said that “there is a lot of misunderstanding and a great deal of misrepresentation that exists about Iran,” and that both countries are “regrettably, probably moving toward a crisis neither of us needs or can afford.”
The only hope, he added, is that “people of good will and reasonableness can meet an agreement.”
Asked if he had any advice to offer the Bush administration to improve relations between the two countries, Zarif said: “We don’t know if the West would favor a continued, diplomatic relationship. We’ve tried to be helpful, but each time, we’ve received much more negative policies after sending positive signals. Whether Washington is interested in opening these channels is very uncertain, particularly given the constituencies currently in power.”
But, he added, quoting former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “atoms for peace and atoms for war are Siamese twins. You cannot draw a line. And that is at the heart of the conflict between Iran and the U.S. How do you supervise this process, to (create more sources of energy) and work toward the improvement of the human condition, and, at the same time, avoid proliferation?”
Current negotiated agreements provide welcome boundaries, he said.
“It is not a foolproof process,” he cautioned, “but it’s the best we’ve got.”
Despite the weighty issues discussed, Zarif found opportunities to inject the occasional wry comment.
When Hunter thanked Zarif for hosting the students and noted that the perspectives the ambassador shared went “far beyond what average Americans hear on CNN or Fox news,” Zarif responded, “I hope not too much Fox news.”
"An opportunity ... I wouldn’t have had anywhere else"
Following the talk, several of the students in attendance commented on Zarif’s warm manner, commanding presence, and generous donation of his time.
“He was much more personable than I expected him to be,” said Giancarlo Pellegrini, a junior international relations from Nyack, N.Y. “He made all of us feel very welcome.”
He also, Pellegrini added, “seemed completely committed to the process of working with the United States. I felt that he was an ally and a friend.”
Matt Reeser, a freshman from Pasadena, Calif., also commented on Zarif’s engaging manner, but was most impressed by the opportunity the day’s events offered.
“It was great to be in the same room as this man and hear his very detailed opinions on the situation in Iraq,” Reeser said. “It was very informative.”
Added Nicole Nigro, a sophomore journalism major and member of Lehigh’s first Global Citizenship class: “This was an amazing opportunity, one that I feel I wouldn’t have had anywhere else. We got to meet an ambassador face-to-face and he pretty much said, ‘Ask me anything.’”
The students, who toured the U.N. following the meeting, were culled from a broad spectrum of disciplines across the university and were selected based on the quality of an essay they wrote on Iran, Hunter said.
“We were able to put this meeting together at a very opportune time,” he said. “Iran is all over the news for nuclear issues. Our students got, for the first time, the Iranian perspective, which is something we couldn’t hear anywhere else. We got behind the headline, beyond the soundbite.”