Sometimes a person you’ve been trained to hate comes across as reasonable. That happened to me when I met Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Every year, during the United Nations General Assembly, Iran’s mission to the United Nations offers a Persian dinner (no alcohol) to 150 or so students, professors, peace activists, and UN interns. After many solemn speakers call for peace in the Middle East, Iran’s president steps up to the podium.

It was enlightening to hear directly from the hated figure himself, rather than getting his words filtered through government officials and the media.

He noted that Sharia law prohibits the use of nuclear weapons and said Iran abides by that rule. He also pointed out that during Iran’s war with Iraq, Iran didn’t respond in kind to Iraq’s use of poison gas, back when the United States was firmly siding with Saddam Hussein. He also went easy on his signature anti-Semitic rhetoric and expressed his aspirations for a more peaceful planet.

Several other speakers, most of whom were from the United States, sought to set the record straight on nuclear issues. They reminded us that Iran did sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and claimed Tehran has thus far abided by its rules, including inspections.

Daniella Zalcman/Flickr

Daniella Zalcman/Flickr

Our government, another one of the treaty’s signatories, has repeatedly violated its stringent provisions. Israel, meanwhile, hasn’t even signed the treaty and has allowed no inspections.

Washington doesn’t deny that we are engaged in full-scale cyberwar with Iran, seeking to control its approaching nuclear capacity. Nor does Israel deny that it systematically murders Iranian nuclear scientists for the same purpose. In addition, President Barack Obama boasts about the severity of the economic sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union, and United Nations to force average Iranians into poverty and deprive them of essential medicines. We also brazenly fly drones over their country whenever we can get away with it.

Many of these deeds constitute acts of war. This rather glaring fact is widely recognized by the rest of the world, but at home, it barely registers. About the only things in Iran that the fading American empire can clearly see are its oil and gas (hence our rush to wage resource wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya). Iran’s nuclear ambitions, by contrast, are a minor concern compared to its oil.

Outside that evening’s dinner, a vigorous group of Iranian-American protesters expressed their opposition to Ahmadinejad and Iran’s theocratic regime. They seemed to understand the corruption on both sides. Iranians have no civil or political rights and their government metes out torture and other cruel and inhumane forms of punishment, including to political prisoners. On the other side, they berated Obama and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu for harassing Iran.

Life as a protester has to be tough when you detest both your own homeland’s leader and those foreign powers who are trying to eat his gizzard.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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