The invitation for dinner with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came from the Iranian Mission to the United Nations. The scene was the darkly brocaded Barclay Room of New York's Intercontinental Hotel.
A small group of journalists, along with Iran experts from academia and think tanks, sat around a square table lit by chandeliers, and set with plates of oriental salads and vases of roses. No alcohol was served.
Mr. Ahmadinejad swept in after giving a defiant speech last week on Iran's nuclear program at the United Nations. A dinner supposed to go 90 minutes lasted three hours.
By its end, some things were clear: This is a man of overweening self-confidence who believes his own rhetoric. He badly misunderstands the American system but is certain that he gets it. He prefaces every meeting with a long religious prologue calling for justice, peace and friendship, yet his words increase tensions.
The overwhelming sense I had from the dinner was of opportunities being squandered to improve U.S.-Iranian relations.
Mr. Ahmadinejad's orations on religion are clearly central to his thinking. He stresses his hope for the return of the Mahdi, the savior in Shiite Islam. Some analysts argue he might want to speed that return by destroying Israel.
So I asked the Iranian leader whether he believed a war was needed to usher in the Mahdi's return. He seemed surprised by the question. His response: "We believe the Mahdi will arrive so there [will be] no war, in order to bring peace and justice. ... It is possible to help [the process] by seeking justice, by resisting injustice."
This reply made me wonder whether Mr. Ahmadinejad's calls for justice were his way of trying to hasten the Mahdi's return. But does he seek to "wipe Israel from the map" (the phrase he has used)? At dinner, he repeated his mantra that Palestinians "should vote for themselves" for the solution they want, and Iran would accept it.
What he means (as he told Time magazine last year) is that "5 million Palestinian refugees" would return "home" and hold a referendum. Israel would disappear "through the vote"; he compares this to the end of the Soviet Union. This may not be Armageddon, but it highlights his total rejection of the Jewish state.
On the nuclear issue, Mr. Ahmadinejad insisted Iran can't be deprived of its right to peaceful nuclear energy and is cooperating with the U.N. inspection agency. Never mind the likely ratcheting up of international sanctions.
The Iranian leader seemed unworried that this might raise the risk the Bush administration would bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. "I do not think the threat of war has increased," he said.
Other dinner guests pointed out that it was counterproductive for Iran to arrest academics and researchers who were trying to build bridges to Iran. Four Iranian-Americans were recently detained or jailed, including Potomac resident Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. (She is now back in this country.) Mr. Ahmadinejad's response: "Do you know what percentage of people are in prison in the United States?"
One was left with the impression that there is slim chance on Iran's side for actions to reduce tensions, including cooperation on Afghanistan or Iraq. But is Mr. Ahmadinejad another Hitler, as some neoconservatives charge? When asked what he thought of the German dictator, the Iranian replied: "His image to us is a despicably dark face."
More to the point, Mr. Ahmadinejad has nothing like Hitler's power. He never replied to my second question: "Who really makes foreign and security policy in Iran?" Those decisions aren't his, but are made by Iran's supreme clerical leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Mr. Ahmadinejad's popularity is dropping at home because he hasn't delivered on economic promises (although insults hurled at him in America may boost his standing). Many observers think he will lose in 2009 elections.
Frustrating he is, because his rhetoric inflames tensions and gives ammo to politicians who want military action. But Hitler he is not.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.