Gary Sick is a very astute observer of Iran. He was the lead Iran aide in the Carter White House during the hostage crisis, and also served on the National Security Council under presidents Ford and Reagan. He’s now a professor at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, and over the years has been a persistent proponent of engaging with Iran. To that end, he himself has participated in frank exchanges with the country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on a number of occasions. But not anymore. When Ahmadinejad returns to New York to visit the UN this month, Sick won’t be meeting with him. Here’s why he’s changed his mind:
Several colleagues have asked me if I plan to attend any of the private functions that normally accompany a visit by Iran’s president to the UN. He will be in New York in late September.
Over the past four years, I estimate that I have spent some nine hours in various groups meeting with Ahmadinejad. I had opportunities to make rather pointed statements and to ask direct questions of Ahmadinejad, a process I thought was useful and potentially important. I appreciated the fact that he was willing to devote a significant amount of time to such direct outreach. I am aware of no other head of state who is willing to do that.
These meetings are organized in the name of bridge-building between Iran and the United States. Last year I had the opportunity to point out to the president that, if he were simply an academic at Tehran University and met with exactly the same 40 or so American academics and think-tank representatives who were assembled around the table in his hotel, he would be subject to arrest when he returned to Iran. You cannot preach the importance of social, cultural and intellectual engagement and then accuse its practitioners of trying to overthrow the Islamic Republic. He laughed it off, claiming that Iranian and American academics moved back and forth freely all the time. I followed up with a letter, which was never acknowledged.
This year, the issue is much more than hypothetical. Iranians who have had even passing contacts with American and Western scholars (and many who have not) are now in jail and being forced to confess that this was all part of a plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic. According to the president, even the abuse of Iranians in prison is the work of sinister outside forces who have apparently penetrated the security system and have taken on the jobs of interrogators and torturers.
So this year, if I am invited, I shall decline. Bridge building has to be more than words. With hundreds of people in jail—many of them in solitary confinement, many suffering beatings, all of them under enormous psychological pressure to “confess” to things that are nothing but the paranoid fantasies of their rulers and jailers—I am not prepared to participate in an exercise that is unlikely to accomplish anything except to lend tacit support to the notion that nothing has changed.
I continue to support engagement and dialogue between the two societies and the two governments. But I am a private citizen with no negotiating power. Judging from my previous meetings with President Ahmadinejad, there is no realistic chance that my words will have any significant effect on the policies of the Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian security services. On the contrary, the most I could accomplish with my presence would be to signal my willingness to proceed with business as usual.
That would be the wrong signal now.