On September 20, the Council on Foreign Relations hosted a small meeting of select council members with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Several members of the Nixon Center's Board of Directors took part including center chairman Maurice R. Greenberg. In his interview with National Interest online editor Ximena Ortiz, the influential business leader-now chairman and CEO of C. V. Starr & Co. and honorary vice chair of the Council on Foreign Relations-describes the session.
Q: Please give us your perspective of President Ahmadinejad's much-publicized performance yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relation, where only members were invited and no televisions cameras were present. Could we start with your personal exchange with the president of Iran?
MRG: He has been quoted many times, including last evening, that the Holocaust needs to be explored as to whether or not it really occurred. And he says, "Well you know, every time somebody tries to do that, they get imprisoned." Well, the reason some have been imprisoned is because it's against the law in some places to deny that the Holocaust occurred.
Of course it occurred. And when he said that, I responded: "Listen, I went through Dachau during the war. To suggest it didn't occur is simply a lie." So he turned around and asked me how old I was, to determine if I was old enough to have been there. And then he changed the subject.
Q: So that was the extent of it?
MRG: Yes, but then there was a lot of follow up on that. He wanted to know why there was an objection to have professors and historians explore whether or not it had occurred. The fact of the matter, obviously we said, is that it's a recognized fact that it occurred; it was 6 million Jews that perished in the Holocaust and that any single individual that denies that is not only wrong but is also trying to be revisionist of history.
Q: Was it your sense that he truly doubts whether the Holocaust occurred or was he grandstanding? He was presumably playing just to that audience because there were no television cameras there.
MRG: No, no, but there were reporters there. Look, he has said this on many occasions, not just last evening. And it's offensive. I would say that this man, he's not only out of touch, he's very clever and I worry about what he's capable of doing. And I do believe that the administration's, and the president's in particular, view of Iran and the danger that it presents to the world, particularly our country and Israel, is not only real, it reflects a real and present danger. I do not think that we can take lightly what he stands for and is capable of, if he came into possession of nuclear weapons.
Q: Give us more insight on the man himself. Clearly you feel that he's dangerous, and that the administration's characterization of him is correct. Can you elaborate? You've dealt with many foreign leaders, given your position in the business community. Is there anything in particular that strikes you about Ahmadinejad?
MRG: Yes: How a man like this came to power. He's very clever. He responds in an oblique way: never directly to the question. He changes the subject. He goes on and on and raises issues. For example, regarding those in prison in Iran, including members of the press-he doesn't answer the question. He says, "There are 3 million people in prison in the United States. What are they in prison for?" He just throws back something that he believes is improper in our country. Not on any factual basis, it's just his method of never answering the question.
The man… I wouldn't call him nuts. He's not crazy. He's crazy like a fox.
Q: So bottom line: In your view, can we do business with him or is it impossible to do so?
MRG: I think it's almost impossible to do business with him as long as he has those views. He says: "Why should the Palestinians suffer even if there was a Holocaust? What does one have to do with the other?" I mean, they have nothing to do with each other. We don't link them together. And we discussed that. They're not linked.
He thinks the Palestinians should be permitted to return, that's never going to happen. If the Palestinians returned to Israel, they'd swamp the country and there wouldn't be an Israel. But he doesn't want an Israel.
Q: It sounds like he didn't make any effort to try to reach out…
MRG: No, no. There was no effort to reach out. He's offensive. He's smug. He's a danger.
Q: Did the council make the right decision in inviting him?
MRG: I think we made the right decision to meet with him because now we have confirmed what he is. By not seeing him, what do you accomplish? Seeing him confirmed what he is. And he knew what we stand for. For him to say that we were simply mouthing the administration's positions-obviously he found that that was not so, because we had Republicans, we had Democrats, and independents in the room.
Q: You say you share the administration's characterization of the Iranian president. But do you feel that this administration is properly equipped to deal with the Ahmadinejad challenge?
MRG: What do you mean by that?
Q: Is it your view that they have the skills necessary in terms of diplomacy, and foreign policy acumen and savoir faire to counter the Iranian challenge? Are they smart enough to deal with this "crazy like a fox" character?
MRG: Yes, I think so. I don't think that's the issue. It doesn't take anybody long (in or out of the administration) to recognize what this man is and how you deal with him. [Iran is] not uninvolved with the whole Middle East, obviously, it's not uninvolved with Iraq, it's not uninvolved with the recent war between Israel and Hizballah. Unfortunately, that resulted in strengthening Iran's position in the Middle East because of their support (both financially and with weapons) of Hizballah. And the Israelis did not have an over-resounding victory. So temporarily this man is riding high. And as I said he's crazy like a fox. And do I think we know how to deal with him?
We can't deal with him. You can't deal with this guy. I do not believe that we should let him come into possession of the capabilities to manufacture a nuclear device, or achieve it by an indirect means, such as buying it from somebody else.
Q: In light of your opinions, is it your view that we have to change tack? Because there are attempts to do business with this man.
MRG: Look, I think you have to negotiate as much as you can. Because a peaceful solution is the best of both worlds. And I would never give up trying to achieve that, because we'd be criticized. We have to think about our role in the world as well, and not just about what we think unilaterally about this individual. So I would not discontinue trying to find a solution to it, via the UN or a coalition of countries that feel as we do that we cannot permit Iran to come into possession of a nuclear device. If they want nuclear power, it's got to be done in a way that doesn't permit them to be enriching material for a nuclear device. We have to keep that from occurring.
Q: And it sounds that your sense of that was crystallized after your meeting…
MRG: My sense was crystallized last evening.