Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Permission to attend a dinner at the Iranian embassy is not exactly commonplace for American journalists in Damascus. So neither I, nor my friend Andrew Tabler, editor of Syria Today magazine, hesitated when we were cleared to attend a banquet celebrating the 28th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

Iran’s embassy in Damascus — its facade covered in blue tiles arranged like a Persian carpet — is the largest Iranian diplomatic post in the Middle East, and a source of no small amount of intrigue and fascination. It often plays host to the likes of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal. And, according to U.S. and Israeli intelligence, it’s also where Iran organizes its arms shipments into Lebanon and the rest of the Levant.

Katyusha rockets and Kalashnikov rifles, however, weren’t on the menu. The Middle Eastern equivalent of the diplomatic rubber-chicken dinner consists of about a dozen Arab courses of grilled meats, hummus, and stuffed vegetables served in a brightly lit hall, male guests outnumbering women by around 20 to 1.

Before we could eat, the Iranian Ambassador, Mohammed Hassan Akhtire, a confidant of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made a sentimental speech about the significance of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. In particular, the turbaned diplomat remembered that Syria was the only country to support the fledgling Islamic Republic, and he said that relations were growing even stronger. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is due to visit Tehran in the near future, he announced.

Perhaps allowing the rare presence of two Americans at the annual event was intended to relay the message to Washington that the so-called Rejectionist Crescent, the arc of state and non-state actors from Iran to Syria, was united in opposition to the Bush Administration’s “New” Middle East. But that wasn’t the only message. At the end of the evening, Ambassador Akhtire lingered long enough to say goodbye to us. “If America wants trust in the Middle East, it has to have a balanced policy based on respect, and which deals with the root causes of problems,” he told me.

Outside the banquet hall, we had a backslapping session with the embassy’s senior staff. An aide kept repeating, “I’m so glad you came.” Not to be outdone, another senior aide asked us if we’d like to visit his country. Andrew and I, aware that an Iranian journalist visa is the Holy Grail of American Middle East correspondents, un-holstered our passports faster than six-shooters. “If American leaders want to talk to Iranian leaders, there will be no problem,” he said, when we asked about re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. “Our leaders are logical. They just want to be treated with dignity and fairness.”

Of course, it may have been just dinner party bonhomie, but this was hardly the reception we had expected from representatives of a country with whom ours is on a course to collision, possibly towards war. Iran suspects the U.S. is planning to attack it, while the U.S. suspects Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons, and of arming radicals in Iraq who kill American soldiers. But the reception we got at the Iranian embassy in Damascus, of all places, suggests that Iran may be looking for a different sort of encounter.

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