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The First Conversation between President Barack Obama and President Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad

In the series of private and fictitious conversations among presidents and among state and non-state leaders that see each other as adversaries or even as enemies, comes this imagined dialogue between President Obama and President Ahmadinedjad. It takes place on Saturday, February 14, 2009 at the U.N. in Geneva.

The first fabricated dialogue in my series was a conversation between President George W. Bush and Sheikh Osama bin Laden (see references). The sole purpose of what I want to convey in this satirical and provocative manner is this simple point: The most rational way to resolve deep disputes and conflicts, nationally and internationally, that makes any sense in the 21st century is talk and time; dialogue, discussion and diplomacy; mediation and negotiations about substantive differences; conversations about different points of views and worldviews; exchanges about injustices and legitimate aspirations, about worries, concerns and fears, about perceived or real threats, and about expectations, wishes and hopes.

We have the know-how. We, the vast and ever growing conflict resolution and mediation and negotiation specialist community around the world. And we collectively, all the human beings that are now alive in this 21st century, know better than using oppression, force, war, terror and violence, and thus creating carnage, unspeakable suffering, pain, misery, and total destruction because of ideological differences and opinions about how we might produce more justice in the world and realize what for all humanity is the same aspiration: to lead a life in dignity. Where peace and prosperity with justice exists it has been achieved through perpetual negotiations, mutual understanding, trade and exchanges of all kinds, global and universal education, actions driven by principles of universal morality, and the persuasion that people everywhere are fundamentally and in their essence the same.

President-elect Barack Obama has espoused his philosophy of talking with the enemy, of the importance that diplomacy would play in his administration and, more specifically, that he would engage in talks with Iran or with President Ahmadinedjad. He made it clear that he would not invite him over to the White House for tea one day. But that this would be a well-prepared meeting, yet without pre-conditions. President-elect Obama also espoused that he stands for tough diplomacy but wants normal diplomatic relations with Iran. And President Ahmadinedjad has wanted to enter into conversation with the U.S. for a very long time. Luckily, both are ready and willing to engage in this dialogue.

So here is my fabricated story and transcript of the first meeting between the two presidents. Though imagined, the essence of what the two presidents express is based on fact. Because the Swiss government has been representing U.S. interests in Iran since 1980, the Swiss Foreign Minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, invited the two presidents for a quick lunch before their private first talk. Mme Calmy-Rey had already met with President Ahmadinedjad personally in March 2008 when a Swiss utility signed a natural gas deal with Iran.

The lunch conversation was more of a chit-chat, feeling each other out a bit. President Obama expressed his thanks for the congratulatory note he had received from President Ahmadinedjad, and President Ahmadinedjad expressed his appreciation that the Bush administration had already paved the way in November of 2008 for normalizing relations with the plans to open a U.S. interest section in Teheran. Mme Calmy-Rey asked questions about their travels, what hobbies they had, and about the sports they liked. They talked about the beauty and vastness of both countries and the 7000 year old history of Iran. President Obama expressed his respect and appreciation for the body of Babylonian laws and Hammurabi’s code. They talked about the fact that both presidents had careers as university professors, love teaching and consider general and good education fundamental. President Obama pointed out that President Ahmadinedjad has a doctorate in civil engineering and thus he must have a special interest in science and technology, and President Ahmadinedjad responded that he would really like to engage in exchange programs with MIT and with other major technical universities in the U.S.

They also pointed out how both of them hold scientific reasoning in high regard and love to engage in intellectual debates. President Ahmadinedjad pointed out that President Obama, like himself, was not looking for controversy, for controversy’s sake. They recognized that they both wanted to get at the core of things and consider all sides of issues to enable them to make the best of decisions. They also shared some family news, they told a bit how they grew up and where, and pointed out that they were about the same age. They mentioned that both had come from a relatively modest family background, one, however, that valued education above all, and that both had worked exceedingly hard and with great discipline to get to where they were now. They also talked about their visions, how they want to make their countries a better place for all their citizens, how they want to regain respect around the world, and how they agreed that fighting poverty in their countries and around the world was a major issue for them. They also shared that they felt the same sense of urgency to do all in their power to avoid more misery and more misunderstandings and to see how they could mend relations and work towards improving communication and speed up cooperation. Early on, during the lunch conversation, they agreed to call each other by their first names.

This exchange lasted some 45 minutes. Then they went off to a smaller room with comfortable chairs and a coffee table. Only two interpreters were present. Though President Ahmadinedjad understands English, he prefers to speak Farsi. One hour was scheduled for this first private exchange. They had agreed that their first conversation should be taped, however, that they would decide at the end of it whether or not the tape should be transcribed and made public. Because they were pleased with what had transpired, they made the transcript public right away. And so here it is:

Mahmoud: It is indeed a great pleasure to have this opportunity to meet with you. I appreciate that we can have our meeting in privacy and then decide later whether we want to share our conversation with the world. So much has been misinterpreted of what I want to express.

Barack: Well, Mahmoud, as you know, I have always maintained that we need to engage in direct talks and give diplomacy a chance and this without preconditions.

Mahmoud: I couldn’t wait for you to become president so that we can engage in these conversations in earnest. I have tried to meet with Mr. Bush. I have even sent him a long letter in 2006. But I never received a response. And we could have met so easily at the U.N. General Assembly. At least, there was a bit of an opening when Mr. Bush dispatched his third-ranking official in the State Department, William Burns, to our talks with the European Union last year. So I am indeed happy that you have a different attitude regarding talks with leaders that have very different world views and that we have this opportunity to clear some things up, however brief our conversation may be today.

Barack: The policy of the past, not to talk with our enemies, and specifically not to talk with the Iranian leadership, as long as you pursue uranium enrichment has come to an end. But let me make it clear: The fear we espouse that your country has plans to construct nuclear weapons, that may land in the hands of terrorists, or that Iran may get ready to attack Israel, that fear is huge in Israel and shared by all Americans, by the European Union, and many more nations around the world. So what I want to get at in this conversation as well as in all our subsequent talks—which I intend to have on all levels and by a whole range of my diplomatic corps—is your assurance that you will not continue your uranium enrichment program.

Mahmoud: The thing is, Barack, we have been afraid of the U.S. We have also been terribly afraid of Israel. You cannot imagine how afraid we are. So we are ready to defend ourselves. This is the basic right of any nation. And why should we be excluded from this right? And furthermore we find it totally arrogant of Western nations that they want to put limitations on our development in industry and technology. The development of our nuclear program is a legitimate interest of ours. We need to do everything we can to insure our energy supply for all generations to come. I have always maintained our peaceful intent.

Barack: You say, Mahmoud, that Western nations want to limit your technological advancement. I want to tell you that this is not so. It is that Western nations and Israel are afraid that you may use your nuclear technology program to develop nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel. You have repeatedly said that Israel has no right to exist, that it should be wiped off the map, or be eliminated from the universe, that the holocaust did not take place and similar nonsense. Now, if Israel hears this, how do you think they need to react? How do you think we need to react?

Mahmoud: Well, I can understand such fears. But, Barack, the fact is that Iran, in our long history, we have never exercised aggression against another nation. We have been attacked by Saddam Hussein, and we fought an eight-year long war, we defended ourselves. Terrible misery was brought to our families through the loss of so many young men. I myself have been part of that war. So, I can only tell you that I am, in a way and ironically, I am grateful to President Bush that he got rid of Saddam Hussein. Yet, I wished it had happened in a totally different manner, without killing ten thousands of totally innocent Iraqi and destroying so much of the country. And, let me add, that we have no problems with persons of Jewish descent. There are many Jews living in Iran today. They are protected by our constitution. And I have never said that Israel should be wiped off the map. What I have said has been misquoted. I mentioned a quote by the late Ayatollah Khomeini and the correct translation of the quote is: “This regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” Our problem is with the State of Israel, the Zionists, and the manner in which they have been dealing with the Palestinians. I have always said, the crimes that happened in Europe, in Germany, why should the Palestinians be victimized for that?

Barack: Well, two things. First, in response to what you have just expressed, namely that you do not think it is right that the Palestinians have to pay the prize for what has happened to the Jews in Germany: I want to make sure that I emphasize how very important it is to me that we find a fair and just solution for the Palestinian population, something that I have reiterated throughout my campaign. I have also declared, time and again, that we will firmly stand behind Israel’s right to exist and that we are committed to Israel’s security and that we want, at the same time, work with the Palestinians and all parties concerned, to secure the rights the Palestinians have to create their state. Both populations must be able to live side by side in peace and prosperity. I do know that we can work together to get this done and I want to prioritize these difficult negotiations in order to find solutions for all the complex issues involved quickly and without further reservations. Secondly, in response to your doubting the Holocaust actually happened, I must admit, this is hard for me to deal with.

Mahmoud: As a scientifically-minded person I want proof, and so that is all I meant.

Barack: Our team will provide you with all the scientific proof you need. There are huge libraries, thousands of books and documents that all provide evidence of what has happened. You can have copies of all the written documents and you can have them translated into Farsi. That would be very useful for the education of your youth as well.

Mahmoud: Thank you, I appreciate that you make an attempt to understand where I am coming from.

Barack: I appreciate your saying this. We will have to work very diligently in clearing this up and bringing these matters, especially the way you think and speak and express things that seem to cause so much havoc, to the attention of the leaders in Israel, to our administration, our Congress, and to the world press. In any event this will be one of the issues that our respective teams will have to work on very diligently. There are two more issues I want to address: You are supporting Shiite militants in Iraq and we need to be sure that your support is for building statehood and the strengthening of democracy and cooperation among all parties and that you refrain from aid to militant rebel groups. And secondly, we could use your help in improving our relations with Syria.

Mahmoud: As our relations improve, I can assure you that I will do all in my power to help unify Iraq. It is in our best interest to have good relations with a strong neighbor and to work together on all matters of trade, education and technological development. I have already had conversations with Syria and I would be happy to plan for a joint meeting.

Barack: Of course, all this is very hard work. We will have to set a very rigorous negotiation agenda and engage simultaneously on many issues. Let me point out one more thing that takes us to a more global scale. I read in your biography that you have a big heart for the poor and that you have been developing many programs, even while you were mayor of Teheran, to help them. This is something that is also dear to my heart. I will increase our contributions to the U.N. so that the Millenium Development Goals of cutting extreme poverty around the world by 2015 can indeed be achieved if not surpassed. It pains me greatly to see the degree to which children living in extreme poverty are victimized. In whatever way we can work together on any specific programs to reduce poverty, I would welcome that.

Mahmoud: I want to assure you that I will do all in my power to help this process along. It is indeed very good to come to this mutual understanding and to discover that we have common goals.

Barack: Unfortunately our time is up and I have to get back. But I do so with a sense of confidence that we can get things done in a constructive manner.

The two presidents shook hands and exchanged some words of thanks and good wishes before being escorted out to meet the world press.

For this first meeting, they had decided that they did not need a mediator to assist them. But it became clear to both that for all upcoming negotiations mediators versed in both cultures and languages would be indispensable. Both presidents instituted an office in the Iranian Foreign Ministry and the State Department respectively with the purpose of recruiting citizen diplomats and mediators upon whom their senior diplomats could call upon for all subsequent negotiations.


-I have a Dream: A Conversation between President George W. Bush and Sheikh Osama bin Laden, 2008. (ISBN: 978-0-595-50299-8 (pbk) and ISBN: 978-0-595-61455-4 (ebk).

-To Talk or not to Talk with the Enemy, that is the Question, June 2008.

-Listening to the Language and the Voices of Terrorists, September 2008.


Noa Zanolli

  Noa Zanolli, Ph.D., is a Swiss social anthropologist, teacher and mediator living in Bern, Switzerland. In the U.S., she worked for several years as a mediator in a community mediation center in Ames, IA, was Director of Education at the Iowa Peace Institute, and has been working internationally as… MORE >

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