From Avenue D to Ahmadinejad: Cohen Speaks to Iranian President

photo(234)Melvin Felix

Stanley Cohen has had a busy week.

Not only is he defending Mona Eltahawy, the commentator arrested Tuesday after defacing a provocative pro-Israel poster, but the Alphabet City-based lawyer spoke his mind about U.S.-Iranian relations to none other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, The Local has learned.

Asked if it might have been unwise to meet with the oft-condemned Iranian president and other government officials during a time of heightened international tension – and on the eve of Yom Kippur, no less – Mr. Cohen said, “I don’t worry about crossing lines.”

That’s evident from his client list, which includes members of the hacker group Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street as well as alleged terrorists. His latest cause, Ms. Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American columnist, faces misdemeanor graffiti charges after spray-painting an anti-jihad ad in the Times Square subway station – an act that Mr. Cohen told the Daily News was an exercise in free speech.

On the day Ms. Eltahawy was arrested, Mr. Cohen was making some bold statements of his own: he was among a handful of U.S.-based speakers invited to the midtown hotel where Mr. Ahmadinejad was staying to share their views of the Middle East with the Iranian president. Also in attendance were Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, and its Ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee.

Mr. Cohen said Mr. Ahmadinejad, in town to address the U.N. General Assembly the next day, was “a fascinating guy in a lot of ways,” and described him to The Local as “smart” and a talented community organizer.

Speaking to the group, Mr. Cohen argued that Iran is “one nation under attack, surrounded by armed enemies on all sides, and facing the constant drum beat of war along its borders.” He described U.S. policy towards Iran as designed “to secure Asia’s southern tier as a hedge against Chinese and Russian economic power, and to connect U.S. control from the Indian Ocean all the way to the Mediterranean Maghreb.”

The Obama administration, Mr. Cohen told The Local, is “an administration that is enamored of secrecy and surveillance”; in his speech, he said that Hillary Clinton’s announcement last Friday that the State Department would remove the Iranian exile group Mujahideen-e-Kalq from a list of terrorist groups can be explained only as “the intention of U.S. power to employ this army as a surrogate for operations against Iran.”

The speech, which can be read online, was delivered on the same day that Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, began at sundown. Responding to those who questioned the timing, he told the audience that “as an American Jew I am one of many thousands of Jews worldwide who do not support Israeli Apartheid” and that his speech was a form of atonement for Israel’s actions. Later, he told The Local he was “very proud of being a Jew,” though he also mentioned that he was not religious. “Israel doesn’t speak for all Jews,” said Mr. Cohen.

The Iranian president was “not the first head of state I have met with, talked to,” said Mr. Cohen, adding that he knew the late Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yassir Arafat and has met with leaders in Lebanon, Yemen and the Persian Gulf over the years. He has interacted with some socially and lightheartedly, and has talked policy with others.

Mr. Cohen counts Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, the second highest leader within Hamas, as a client and an old friend. In April, he facilitated a first-of-its-kind interview between the Hamas official and The Jewish Daily Forward. “This world would be better if we had 10 dozen Abu Marzooks,” said Mr. Cohen.

As Mr. Cohen’s international profile has grown over the last twenty years, so too has his involvement in legal cases overseas. In June, The Local reported on federal tax charges brought against Mr. Cohen that he said were linked to his work defending controversial clients, including terror suspects.

“I wish that the U.S. government had the decency to charge me with material support of terrorism,” he said of the charges.

Mr. Cohen, who has long kept an office on Avenue D, will soon travel to Istanbul and South Africa, with a possible side trip to Egypt. “I’ve gotta go meet with some terrorists,” he joked.