- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

It’s an invitation even some committed pacifists are loath to accept: an evening with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Even the Quakers say they won’t meet with Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is expected to face large protests outside the United Nations and his hotel, the Barclay.

“We decided this year, we are not going engage with him in a big public meeting in New York as we have in the past,” Joe Volk, executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, told The Washington Times. “Right now, Americans meddling in the postelection situation will not be helpful. And so it is best for Americans to let the dust settle on the elections before we engage.”

Although Mr. Ahmadinejad has faced protests since he first came to New York for the U.N. General Assembly in 2005, the opposition to his scheduled visit next week is expected to be particularly fierce in light of Iran’s disputed June 12 presidential election.

With hundreds of Iranians still in jail, at least 36 dead in clashes with security forces and the nation’s political elite bitterly divided, even Americans who have long favored engagement with Iran are feeling queasy about greeting its president.

Earlier this month, a counselor at the Iranian mission to the United Nations, Vahid Karimi, sent an e-mail to a number of academics and other Iran specialists inviting them to a dinner with the Iranian leader on Sept. 24. The e-mail was shared with The Times.

Some of those invited are refusing to attend, including Robert Litwak, director of international security studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In 2007, one of his colleagues - Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Wilson Center - was jailed for four months in Iran on suspicion of trying to overturn the government through a “velvet revolution” - the same charges raised against Iranian dissidents now.

“It’s a very personal decision” as to whether academics should go to dinner with Mr. Ahmadinejad, said Ms. Esfandiari, author of a new book about her ordeal, “My Prison, My Home.” She said she received an invitation to such a gathering in 2008 but did not go.

This time, she said, the decision was easy because “luckily, I wasn’t invited.”

Others say they will attend if only to press Mr. Ahmadinejad about human rights.

Jim Walsh, a nonproliferation specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said he will raise questions about Iran’s treatment of fellow scholars with whom he has met over the years.

Mr. Ahmadinejad “will probably come out and say the same thing he always does,” denying any Iranian wrongdoing, Mr. Walsh said. Still, he said, he plans to ask the Iranian leader why he has encouraged Americans to engage in dialogue with Iranians and then “we do that and our colleagues get arrested. Does this follow logic and justice [two buzzwords frequently employed by Iranian officials]?”

Geneive Abdo, an Iran analyst at the Century Foundation, said that meeting with the Iranian president does not mean legitimizing him or accepting his disputed re-election.

“For people in academia and think tanks, it’s not an issue of expressing support for Ahmadinejad by going; it’s that people want to go to hear what he has to say,” she said. “The politics should not play into this.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad is to address the General Assembly on the same day as President Obama, but has not been invited to the annual U.S. reception for heads of state - even though the U.S. and Iran have agreed to participate in formal talks beginning Oct. 1.

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a visiting scholar at the University of Massachusetts and a former member of Iran’s parliament, is urging other diplomats to demonstrate their disapproval of Mr. Ahmadinejad.

“We are requesting other nations not to recognize him,” she said. “During the illegal President Mahmoud’s speech, we are asking the diplomats to leave the [U.N. General] Assembly while he speaks.”

The Iranian leader has inviteda small number of U.N. correspondents to a news conference on Sept. 25. During previous visits, Mr. Ahmadinejad invited news executives and Iran specialists to on-the-record roundtable discussions. He also has appeared before the Council on Foreign Relations, given a speech at Columbia University and met with anti-war U.S. religious groups. This time, his outside appearances are likely to be limited.

Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi also is scheduled to attend the U.N. meeting this year, for the first time. His initial plans to pitch a tent in New Jersey were vetoed by the State Department after local residents complained. He is likely to attract protests because of the Libyan hero’s welcome to Pan Am Flight 103 bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi.

Mr. al-Megrahi, convicted in the 1988 bombing that killed 270 people, most of them Americans, was released from a Scottish prison and allowed to return to Libya last month. He is said to have terminal cancer but his release provoked an uproar, particularly among the families of the victims.

Given the controversy over the visits of Mr. Ahmadinejad and Col. Gadhafi, the United Nations, the State Department, the White House and the New York City Police Department will be especially vigilant on security this year.

The United Nations has long been on high alert during the General Assembly, even before al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden painted a bull’s-eye on the East River complex in 2003, when he branded it as Washington’s tool.

By next week, there will be uniformed police all around the U.N. compound, marksmen on the roofs and scores of NYPD vehicles lining First Avenue, which will be closed to traffic. Heavy iron sewer caps will be sealed with clear glue to reduce the risk of explosives being planted.

Inside the United Nations, bomb dogs will sniff every room before a dignitary enters and check every briefcase, video camera and umbrella.

Public tours will be suspended, the airspace will be closed to commercial traffic and no barges will float down that portion of the East River. To the annual dismay of cabdrivers, streets will be blockaded in much of eastern Midtown, encompassing four-star hotels and diplomatic property.

Stanley Meisler, a historian of the United Nations, said that Mr. Ahmadinejad and Col. Gadhafi are its most controversial visitors since Cuban leader Fidel Castro came for the 50th anniversary of the organization in 1995 and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat visited in 1974.

In general, such world leaders are only dimly aware of protests, he said.

“It’s usually done with lots of security and great delicacy and they don’t really have problems,” Mr. Meisler said. “The protesters are kept outside and once you are in the U.N. itself, you don’t even know they’re there.”

“The United Nations over its 64 years has welcomed a wide range of world leaders,” said Farhan Haq, a U.N. spokesman. “Obviously, not all of these leaders are to everyone’s liking. But they have all come here, prepared to be civil.”

An employee at the Iranian Mission to the United Nations acknowledged that there are demonstrations whenever Mr. Ahmadinejad comes to New York.

“That is not something new,” he said, speaking on the condition that he not be named. He added that the sight does not bother Mr. Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian noted that the protests are organized by “Jewish students from here, from Boston, from wherever, and are comparing [the president] to Hitler.

“Imagine such a thing,” he told The Times.

“It’s going to be an ugly, ugly thing,” MIT’s Mr. Walsh said about braving the likely protests. “Last year squared with human rights people and democracy people as well as Iranian-Americans.”

Betsy Pisik contributed to this report from the United Nations.

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