The meeting was organized by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, one of the oldest peace organizations in the United States. More than 100 peace activists attended the meeting, which was held during the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
Sinkford spoke about the importance of religious and political freedoms to UUs:
Central to our religious heritage as Unitarian Universalists is the defense of religious and political freedoms and full equality for all people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or national origin. In the United States we struggle to make these freedoms and that equality real.
The reports we receive about the treatment of women and political dissidents in Iran raise questions and concerns for us. Is Iran moving towards allowing its citizens more freedom of choice and affiliation? Is the government working towards equality for women in public life? Are protections being created for citizens who identify with different political parties, religious beliefs, and sexual orientations?
Our government and our cultures are very different. Given those basic differences, I would like to hear from you how the U.S. and Iran can best work together to find non-violent resolutions to our differences.
According to Adam Gerhardstein, acting director of the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy, Ahmadinejad responded by talking at length about Iranian attitudes towards women. He cited statistics about the civil engagement of Iranian women, (e.g., 70 percent of university students are women). He also spoke about the Iranian belief that women are the essence of society’s beauty and kindness, and that Iranians do not want women to work too hard for fear of breaking their spirit and destroying society’s beauty.
Sinkford was joined by a delegation of UUs, including Gerhardstein, Bruce Knotts, executive director of the UU-United Nations Office (UU-UNO), Marilyn Mehr, board president of the UU-UNO, and Helen Lindsay and Marion Ward, Unitarian Universalists who have traveled to Iran with Fellowship of Reconciliation peace delegations.
The eleven other speakers covered many issues. Gerhardstein reported that some questioned Iran’s intimidation of diplomats and its violence towards youth trying to shape Iran’s future. One speaker asked Ahmadinejad to clarify Iran’s stance towards Israel and Palestine. Another raised concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The final questions sought to gauge Iran’s willingness to work with the U.S. government and the peace movement.
Ahmadinejad spent an hour responding to the questions. He condemned the use of war, saying that it brings nothing but “pain, destruction, and tension.” He defended Iran’s civilian nuclear program, stating that Iran spends three times more money on solar and wind energy than nuclear. To a question about Israel and Palestine, he said that every nation deserves the right to decide its own future and that if Palestine is given a free referendum, Iran will support the outcome.
He addressed concerns about the prospects that the United States will launch a war with Iran. “I really believe that the U.S. is no longer able to start a war for decades to come,” he said. As he left the meeting, he told the assembled peace organizations to count him as a member.
Reflecting on the meeting, Sinkford said, “Ahmadinejad presented an image of Iran as a peace-loving, progressive, ethical, sane member of the community of nations. One question I have is how the reality of life in Iran would match that image.”
Sinkford credited Ahmadinejad, however, for being willing to meet with their group. “I could not imagine the current U.S. president taking the time to honor questions about his actions the way Ahmadinejad did today,” he said.