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My Strange Meeting with the Iranian President
A report from the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
I’ve been invited before to meetings with the Iranian government leadership—president, foreign minister, another president. It’s always a hard call going to the meeting; on the one hand, it somehow feels like an acknowledgement, a seal of approval. Many friends have made an eloquent case to boycott Iranian leaders. On the other, a sterile appreciation of foreign policy does little to deepen understanding of why governments make the decisions they do. Personality and presentation are a critical part of understanding our enemies and rivals.
And I’ve met with the worst of the worst: as a Hill staffer, I met with the Taliban—back in the weird old days when they were fronted in Washington by the daughter in law of the former head of the CIA. As a journalist in the late 1980s, I met with the founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. They all have what passes for a story.
But the meeting this week with President Ebrahim Raisi was different from my previous adventures with Iranian dictators and their amanuenses. There were fewer people. Attendees whispered that many they knew who were invited had said no—for reasons of timing, and yes, because this is the anniversary of the murder of Mahsa Amini. Weirdly, the meeting was on the same day of the hostage-prisoner exchange and $6 billion payoff to secure their release. Guests speculated that Raisi was coming to the think tank confab from a meeting with Secretary of State Tony Blinken, or maybe White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk. (The real Iran coordinator, Rob Malley, has been out of work since April, on leave over a security violation of a mysterious nature.)
Needless to say, the whole shindig was off the record. Don’t worry, a flunky assured us, you won’t be on film, as if to acknowledge that they knew they weren’t strictly kosher—or to make sure that we knew we weren’t props in their propaganda games. But my impressions are not off the record. Guests at previous such meetings ranged from respectable (premier DC and New York think tanks) to marginal (fringe conspiracists), but the gravamen was in the normal range. Not this time. There were a few familiar faces, and… other people. So few that the table was interspersed with senior Iranian officials—and I mean senior. There was a convicted pedophile. Not one but two young things from what seemed to be a Noam Chomsky tribute website. A man from an eponymous foundation who nodded warmly and repeatedly at Raisi.
The president was his usual irate self, ineffective because he wandered seamlessly between angry leftist alt-politics and outright lies. Never charming, which—let’s face it—many Iranians are. He wouldn’t talk of dealing with the Biden administration, something two of us asked about. Indeed, he was resolute in not commenting on widespread reports—even in the Iranian press—of the “understanding” between Washington and Tehran to have Iran ramp down attacks on Americans and take a day off from accumulating highly-enriched uranium.
Michael Rubin, my American Enterprise Institute mate also at the event, texted to dare me to ask the black-turbaned Raisi how many turbans he had and whether the blood washed out easily. But he only offered $20. (Rubin is so cheap.) I countered with my theory that we were to be presented with an interpretative dance of Qassem Soleimani’s poetry. The president had waxed eloquent about the virtues of the late leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, killed on the orders of Donald Trump in January 2020, a theme he expanded on in his United Nations address.
But I digress. We finally ended the sweaty interlude with applause—yes indeed, there were Americans there who applauded this killer (twice)—to file out and be presented with a hefty gift bag. Now, I like a gift bag, but this one weighed about half a ton, and it was from the Iranian government, so I left it in the elevator for the crack security staff to find. For those who kept it, the paper bag alone was a remarkable artifact: “Office of the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” it said—because we all see ourselves traipsing through JFK with that.
Snark aside, was it worth the trip? No, notwithstanding the pleasantly proffered invitation to visit Tehran from the fellow seated next to me. Aside from the fact that I realized I was probably not worth a billion plus dollars to the Biden administration, it seemed eminently clear that there was zero chance of a productive diplomatic conversation with these people—which begs the question of what exactly our diplomats are talking about with their Iranian interlocutors during their ongoing chats in Oman.
Nothing will change in Iran until everything changes at the top.