Colgate Students Meet Iranian President

It may come as no surprise that Colgate students are attending important events around the world — at least until you learn of last week’s excursion. On September 24th, a select group of Colgate International Relations majors and students had an outstanding opportunity presented to them. While the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, 26 Colgate students and the Chair of the International Relations Department, Professor Fred Chernoff, were given the opportunity to attend an intimate gathering of students and professors from around the country to meet and ask questions of the Iranian president.

The event was held at New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel where each student was handed a headset, in true United Nations fashion, to hear the speech of President Ahmadinejad translated from Persian to English. The hosts of the event announced that close to 400 students and professors were in attendance, including high school students and UN interns. When President Ahmadinejad finally was given the chance to talk, after numerous speakers before him, he stressed how happy he was to again be “in the presence of students.”

Ahmadinejad described himself many times as a “simple teacher.” He was a professor in Iran before assuming the Presidency and continues to teach classes at the university during his term. With such a background, he said that students are helpful to him, because he truly believes that “students are the engine for the nation” because they want to “shape the world the way they like.” He continued, “it is the young people who create change, movements, waves.”

After a quick speech, he opened the floor up for questions. The questions and his responses ranged from his opinions about Israel, the Holocaust, freedom of speech, the influence of the media and, of course, the IAEA and nuclear ambitions. The competition to get a hand in the air and ask your question was fierce, but two Colgate students managed to have their voices heard by the Iranian President. Safwan Bin Shabab ’10 was able to ask a pertinent question about Iran’s responsibility in the midst of the rise of oil prices. Junior Herbert Hill asked Ahmadinejad how he can reconcile his insistence that Iran is following all IAEA mandates and regulations while the IAEA still says Iran is not complying. After more than an hour of questions and answers, President Ahmadinejad asked his supervisors and the hosts if it would be possible to extend the discussion, which was allowed for an extra half an hour.

Hill thought Ahmadinejad’s decision to field questions from an audience of students “was either really bold or really stupid,” but “he is very good at answering the tough questions that he expects.”

Andrew Spano ’10, who called the Iranian president a “dancer,” said Ahmadinejad “never really answered any of the questions. He gave the ‘half-truths.’ But, then again, that’s what he’s supposed to do.”

While some students’ opinions of the President have changed, Hill claims that he did not change his mind about Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he called “insane and quite proficient at overseeing horrible and morally wrong policies while trying to maintain this facade of cooperation and willingness to talk.”

Nonetheless, the President’s willingness to openly and frankly talk with a conference room full of American students separates him from many of today’s world leaders. It also showed a great deal of courage given last year’s protests and reactions to a similar event the President participated in at Columbia University during his UN visit. The President of Iran was witty, charming and hospitable (he provided breakfast and then offered to treat all the students to lunch), but at the same time unconvincing — perhaps that’s all even the most grateful Colgate students can expect of a man who questioned the Holocaust in their presence.