NEW YORK – Hosting an Iranian president is not a simple matter for an American hotel. Until last Friday’s 15-minute phone call, after all, US and Iranian presidents hadn’t so much as spoken in more than 30 years. In the days of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, providing lodging could trigger demonstrations and boycott threats. Even now, in the era of happy Hassan Rouhani, questions about the recent prominent Iranian guest triggered palpable discomfort this week among staff at the four-star ONE UN hotel — located on 44th Street, right across from UN headquarters.
I’d popped in to inspect Rouhani’s newly vacated accommodations because Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister with whom I’d traveled from Tel Aviv, was devoting the last two days of his visit to interviews with various American media outlets (though he also found time to take in a Broadway show: the 2013 Tony Award winner “Pippin“).
It turns out Rouhani’s “smiling never hurts” tactic (as it was described by Netanyahu in his withering UN speech on Tuesday) had worked a charm not only with President Barack Obama but with staff at the ONE UN, as well.
The Iranian delegates were “really nice,” someone on the front desk said — and, better still, “quite generous. They left tips in most rooms.”
Since you’re asking, the team from Tehran brought their own cook to prepare halal meals, and ordered in their produce — including a lot of basmati rice — from FreshDirect online. Try doing that at the King David.
My intrepid reporting skills established that Rouhani himself slept in room 2814 — facing the East River and overlooking the UN Plaza. From his window, then, he could see the Israeli and Iranian flags fluttering almost next to each other, with only Iraq and Ireland in between. The wolf (in sheep’s clothing) side-by-side with the lamb, to mix prophet Isaiah with prophet (of doom) Netanyahu.
I can further report that the unadorned wooden door gives no hint that this is the presidential suite. But there, I’m afraid, I reached the limit of my snooping skills; the door was locked and the maid refused to open it for me. No, sir, not even for a quick peek. “I would get into trouble,” she said.
Rouhani and his retinue booked the entire 28th and 29th floors — as did Ahmadinejad and his associates when they stayed here in 2010 — to keep the president insulated from strangers on the floors above and below; there are no rooms on the 27th floor, which houses the gym.
Security during Rouhani’s stay was super-tight, a different maid noted. I certainly wouldn’t have made it to the 28th floor when the president was in residence. (Nothing surprising about that; Israel operates its own ferociously stringent security restrictions.)
The maids on 28, even if they kept the doors locked in the face of my entreaties, proved to be among the more garrulous ONE UN employees. In the lobby, where until a few days earlier dozens of Iranian delegates spent hours typing busily into their laptops and smartphones (updating the presidential Twitter feed?), staffer after staffer had nothing to say about the departed guests. Even in the coffee shop, where I have it on good authority many of the Iranians whiled away parts of their days over teas and espressos, three employees were struck by amnesia.
Ah, but here was the concierge, employed solely to serve as a source of assistance. No, not in this case. “I can’t divulge any information about our guests,” she told me, cushioning the blow by clarifying that she was an equal-opportunity stonewaller. “Even if you asked me if your sister had stayed here, I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you.”
A combined force of hotel staffers and Iranian officials had proved a similarly effective barrier last week, when turning away Israeli journalists from the press conference Rouhani held on the second floor. Two Israeli journalists did manage to find berths in the hotel lobby while the press conference was going on. One of them, Tal Shalev, diplomatic correspondent for the i24News TV station, said a few members of the Iranian delegation sat right next to her, listening to Rouhani on their iPhones, “while obsessively photographing themselves as if they were documenting for Facebook or something.”
The Iranians also hosted a well-publicized dinner here, attended by the German deputy foreign minister, the newly elected president of the General Assembly, and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
News that ONE UN would be hosting Rouhani had sparked protests back in August, when a group called United Against A Nuclear Iran (UANI) urged the hotel to turn the Iranians away. “Certainly the ONE UN is aware that President Rouhani is the public face of a brutal regime that is a sworn enemy of the United States, and which is under strict sanctions by the US government and the international community,” the group’s CEO, Mark Wallace, wrote in a letter to the hotel. No American entity “should be doing business with the Iranian regime and its delegation, until the regime has seriously and verifiably altered its dangerous and threatening behavior.” While UANI does not intend to “harm legitimate businesses,” the group will “publicly highlight” the hotel’s “irresponsible decision” if it indeed hosts the Iranians, Wallace threatened.
UANI has a history of intimidating New York City hotels that cater to Iranian governmental delegations. Over the years, it managed to persuade several such venues to rethink. This time last year, UANI staged loud demonstrations in front of the Warwick Hotel, where Ahmadinejad and his men were staying, leading the hotel and its new general manager Peter Walterspiel to say no to Iran in 2013.
The fact that Obama is now on speaking terms with “the public face of a brutal regime,” however, may take some of the wind of UANI’s sails from now on.
Why did UN ONE say yes to Rouhani, when the Warwick and who knows how many other New York hotels had said no? Was management tipped off in advance that the new president would not be denying the Holocaust?
The concierge, true to form, had no answer for me. And the director of the front office, Steven Fennell, said he too couldn’t divulge any information about hotel guests. “I don’t need you to confirm that he was here,” I explained. “I just want to know which criteria you employ to accept or reject guests.”
Fennell ducked into the back office and called the hotel manager, who arrived with a silent companion in a dark suit and asked me, rather impatiently, to let it go. But I stubbornly repeated my inquiry.
The hotel belongs to the UN and operates under its charter, which forbids it from refusing any guests based on race, gender or religion, he finally told me — an entirely reasonable response, I thought, but one that he delivered rather angrily and while refusing to tell me his name. (And one that proved to be just slightly inaccurate, as we shall shortly see.)
“Didn’t you refuse to host Ahmadinejad for the last two years?” I asked.
“Who are you?” he responded. “Can I see some identification?” And then, “You are not authorized to ask these questions.”
Really? Since when does one require authorization to ask questions, I wondered aloud, as I took out my press card and handed it to him. He shook his head and mumbled with apparent exasperation: “Israeli. Not even from the US.”
“Is it a crime not to be from the US?” I asked, incredulously.
Fortunately for us both, Fennell returned from the back office at this point, and handed me his business card, on which he had written the contact information of the hotel’s public relations director. She would answer all my inquiries, he assured me. If I would now be so kind as to leave.
“ONE UN New York was originally built to serve the United Nations community and provide accommodations to all United Nations staff and member countries,” a hotel spokesperson wrote to me in an e-mail the next day. “Although we are now a private entity, we are still contractually obligated to provide accommodations to all United Nations’ member countries upon request. When the Iranian delegation requested lodging, we provided them with accommodations and coordinated our activities with the US Secret Service.”
ONE UN had not refused to host the Iranians in the previous two, Ahmadinejad-led years, the spokesperson added. “If the Iranians requested to stay at the hotel, they would have only been turned away if the hotel was already fully booked.”
The anti-Iran activists from UANI are not impressed. “The Iranian regime used the ONE UN not just for accommodation, but to host events as part of its New York City charm offensive,” the group’s communications director, Nathan Carleton, told me. “We wish the ONE UN had not hosted Rouhani and his delegation, and hope they will not do the same next year. When it comes to commerce with Iran, private businesses should put principle above profit.”
Based on my visit, I think it’s unlikely Rouhani would be turned away if he sought to book here again next year. Whether he can charm Obama once diplomacy gets serious may be an open question, but I don’t see him meeting any resistance from the management of ONE UN.