The Warwick Hotel doesn’t want trouble.
But as host for the second year in a row to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose entourage took up all or part of at least three floors of the small Midtown hotel this week, it is starting to feel the blowback.
On Tuesday, while the Iranian president was at meetings in the UN, bicyclists with specially outfitted posters rode around the hotel calling to boycott it. A commenter on the uber-popular recommendations website Yelp noted that “This hotel likes to support regimes committed to destroying the U.S. and other western countries. Its hosting of the delegation this week is yet another example of money over values.”
Guests not attached to the diplomatic delegation were bewildered as they wheeled suitcases past machine gun-armed NYPD police, some on horseback, and through metal detectors at the front entrance.
Inside, the Iranian president’s aides and security detail dominated the small lobby, with walkie-talkies in hand and a penchant for joining in the elevator anyone they deemed suspicious, including this reporter.
Journalists who were not cleared long before – the hotel would not discuss the clearance process – were denied entrance to the hotel, though many successfully entered as guests of United Against a Nuclear Iran, a New York-based activist organization that has committed itself to making the Holocaust-denying Iranian president’s time in New York as miserable as possible.
It seemed to be succeeding.
UANI rented a room in the hotel and its activists spent the week walking in and out of the building sporting anti-Ahmadinejad posters and wearing shirts emblazoned with Ahmadinejad’s face under a red circle-and-bar “no” logo.
The hotel, at West 54th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, is the only establishment still willing to host the Iranian president, UANI executive director David Ibsen says, after the Intercontinental, the Hilton and several other venues declined.
“They’re putting profit ahead of principle in this instance. We think personally that a guy who denies 9/11, calls the Holocaust a big lie, shouldn’t come to New York and be able to have four-star accommodations. Let him stay at the [Iranian] Mission [to the UN,] which is what the Cubans are doing,” Ibsen says.
Does Ahmadinejad really care about such protests?
“I think he cares, because one thing the Iranians want is to be treated like any other country in good standing in the world. So when they come to New York, they want to be feted by journalists. They want to make it seem like there’s nothing wrong with their visit here. When we show up it shows that they’re illegitimate and people really do care about what they’re doing across the world.”
UANI has been pressuring and cajoling New York establishments to deny service to the Iranian president since 2009. The result, Ibsen says, has been to isolate the head of the Iranian regime from everything New York has to offer a visiting dignitary.
“In previous years when Ahmadinejad came here, he wasn’t just located in a hotel. He was able to go to all different venues, press conferences and meetings. Now other venues refuse to host him because of the reputational risk. They don’t want to be associated with him. So now he’s isolated in this one place [the Warwick], so we’re able to concentrate on it.”
Indeed, the hotel seemed to be in lockdown this week. Multiple calls to management were not answered; messages were not returned. Asked if the hotel had anyone dealing with the press, the hotel’s assistant director of security Sweeny Padilla said, “There’s nobody who deals with communications at this hotel. Everybody is just too busy.”
The Times of Israel called the PR firm listed on the hotel’s website, Middleton & Gendron Inc., who said they were not dealing with the issue, and instead directed reporters to Mike McKeon of Mercury Public Affairs, a firm that advertises at the top of its website that it knows “what it takes to win in difficult situations.”
McKeon sent the Times of Israel a statement that read, in full:
“Like many other hotels in New York City, the Warwick New York Hotel for many years has served international delegates and U.S. officials who participate in the General Assembly of the United Nations. We have hosted delegations from different nations since 1926, and remain committed to supporting the City of New York’s long tradition of providing an open door to those attending the General Assembly. While it is our policy to respect the privacy of our guests, we also respect the rights of those who chose to voice their opinions and participate in peaceful demonstrations.”
Asked if a New York establishment could in good conscience host a man who questioned before the UN General Assembly whether Al-Qaeda had committed the 9/11 attacks, whether the hotel knew that many other establishments had declined to host the Iranian delegation, and to respond to Ibsen’s comment that “They’re putting profit ahead of principle,” McKeon would only say, “I refer you back to the statement.”
For his part, even if he can’t force Ahmadinejad to stay at Iran’s UN mission, Ibsen is satisfied that he has at least denied the Iranian president the luxury of previous years.
“I don’t think [the Warwick] is as nice as the Intercontinental where he used to stay. Some of the Yelp reviews are pretty critical, talking about cockroaches and mold, which makes us pretty happy he has to stay here.”
Is he concerned the Warwick will kick out the activist group causing it so much trouble?
Ibsen smiles: “It would be very interesting if the Warwick hosts the Iranian delegation and then decides to kick out an American protest group.”
The flags are all Iranian
Across the street from the hotel, a rowdy demonstration took place on Tuesday. Some of the billboards were UANI’s, but most of the demonstrators were Muslims, with many women wearing Muslim headdress, and the flags were all Iranian.
Their message, according to Nasser Sharif, one of the organizers, “is that Ahmadinejad is oppressing the Iranian people, and Iran’s people are ready for regime change.
“The Iranian people oppose this regime,” Sharif repeats, “because of the brutality of the government in Iran. In the last 30-some years, more than 120,000 Iranians were executed by this government for having different beliefs. Most belong to the MEK [Mujahadeen-e-Khalq], the Iranian main opposition. So the economy is really, really bad, and there’s no freedom. They’re arresting people left and right. It’s a brutal regime that doesn’t let any [opposition] opinion to be raised.”
The Mujahadeen-e-Khalq is a political movement that supported the 1979 Iranian revolution but is today opposed to the regime. It has long been listed as a terrorist organization, but was taken off the European Union terror list in 2009 and the US State Department’s list last week. It claims to have renounced violence and is a member of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which claims to be a “parliament-in-exile dedicated to a democratic, secular and coalition government in Iran.”
Sharif puts some of the blame for Iran’s current regime on the United States, including the current administration.
During the 2009 protests following that year’s contested elections, “the Iranian people were chanting, ‘Obama, Obama are you with us or with them?’ Clearly they were sending a message to Obama: Support us. Unfortunately we missed a big opportunity at that time,” when the US administration decided to continue its policy of engaging the regime over its nuclear program rather than turning on it and offering support to the protests.
“We’re expecting the US administration to change its policy from engaging Iran and invest in the Iranian people and their opposition,” Sharif said.
“The Iranian people are ready to change this government,” he insisted. “Instead of either attacking or engaging Iran, there’s a better option on the table: let the Iranian people and opposition do this. No American soldier should die in Iran.”
Sharif added that Israel should take the Iranian government at its word when it threatens the existence of the Jewish state.
“When Ahmadinejad says he wants to wipe Israel off the map, he means it. It’s not just rhetoric. They’re the main sponsor of terrorism all over the world, supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. And, unfortunately, instead of investing in the Iranian people, the money of the government goes to supporting terrorism all over the world,” he said.