On September 23, twenty Colgate students planned to attend a meeting with Iranian President Ahmadinejad that was part of his visit to the United Nations. The trip was scheduled prior to his radical denial of the Holocaust in his speech on September 18. To avoid providing a propaganda opportunity, Professor of International Relations Fred Chernoff cancelled the trip.
Ahmadinejad has recently dominated international news. According to news reports, he has stolen an election, denied the Holocaust, called for the destruction of Israel, violated human rights and most recently has been accused of establishing a secret nuclear arms facility.
Despite his busy schedule, Ahmadinejad planned a dinner, including a speech and a question-and-answer session, for the Colgate students last Wednesday night. Ahmadinejad planned a similar event last year, which Colgate students actually did attend.
This dinner posed an enormous opportunity for students to hear a global leader speak in person, and to ask Ahmadinejad questions that would not be pre-screened.
On the other hand, the dinner was also part of a propaganda campaign. Originally, Chernoff believed that the benefits of attending the dinner as scholars outweighed the fact that it was going to show Ahmadinejad support in some small way.
In light of current events in Iran and Ahmadinejad’s speech in Tehran the week prior to the planned trip date, Chernoff cancelled the trip. The benefits no longer outweighed the cost, given the mass protests in response to the arguably stolen re-election of Ahmadinejad and his continued attack on Holocaust survivors.
In Chernoff’s e-mail informing the Iranian Mission that the Colgate group would not be attending the dinner, he wrote, “I do not think it is right to meet with a leader in the wake of an address that sank to such a low level of respect for others. The president’s remarks [regarding the Holocaust] were an insult to people around the world who take the facts of history seriously and know full well of the reality and horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s.”
Chernoff also emphasized that, despite his refusal of the invitation, he hopes for an “honest dialogue” in the future.
In response to Chernoff’s e-mail explaining Colgate’s absence at the dinner, Mr. Vahid Karimi, a counselor at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations, wrote: “I believe unless we provide the circumstances in which we could listen to each other, we can’t reach to the points you referred to. I think the problems can be solved by sincere exchange of views.”
Chernoff is not the only person who feels that the costs are especially high for attending an event involving Ahmadinejad.
According to Farnaz Fassihi and Christopher Rhoads in The Wall Street Journal, “Many people who attended [the event] last year say that in light of the post-election upheaval, they wouldn’t go this year…Gary Sick, the principal White House advisor on Iran during the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis…has attended such dinners in the past. He wrote on his blog last week that he wouldn’t attend this year if he was invited.”
Senior Adam Hughes had mixed feeling regarding Chernoff’s decision not to attend the dinner.
“Colgate’s participation in an Iranian propaganda campaign is ethically reprehensible,” Hughes said. However, “the ability to witness Ahmadinejad speak, and to ask questions of him, is an extraordinary opportunity.”
Sophomore Jackie Blank, one of the twenty Colgate students who planned on making the trip, similarly had mixed feelings. Blank felt that she had a lot to gain from the experience, but at the same time understands the importance of not having the Colgate group’s attendance at the dinner misconstrued as support of Ahmadinejad.
“Even if the questions were to be censored by the Iranian press, Colgate students would have experienced a truly awful dictator trying to defend himself – a profound educational opportunity,” Hughes said.
Nonetheless, while some students were understandably frustrated with Chernoff’s decision, most seemed to understand the reasoning behind his decision.
“If I were Professor Chernoff, I think I would have made the same decision,” Hughes said.