My Breakfast With Mahmoud
And now for something completely different. I’ve had breakfast with a lot of politicians over the years, but this morning’s was more memorable than most: Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a session for about 20 media types, arranged by Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations. I’m no foreign policy guru, but Ahmadinejad is up for reelection next year, and it was fascinating to consider his performance through a campaign lens.
U.S. politicians tend to be the glossiest in the room, with the well-polished look of those who are always camera-ready. Ahmadinejad was, by contrast, the scruffiest of his crew. Most were tieless but wore suit jackets. Sitting among them, in his trademark beige sports coat that looks like something like a thrift store windbreaker, Ahmadinejad reminded me of a criminal defendant with his better-dressed legal team.
But he seemed anything but uncomfortable -- and why should he be? He had arrayed before him, with still and video cameras to record the scene for the folks back home, titans of the U.S. media establishment: the presidents of NBC News and CNN, CBS anchor Katie Couric, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller, as well as a few of us lesser mortals. Ahmadinejad proceeded to deliver a lecture that could be summarized as the Farsi version of The Times They Are A-Changin', with a pounding anti-Zionist backbeat.
The age of the American empire is over, Ahmadinejad said -- you could imagine that the folks back home would eat this up -- and he was simply “giving assistance to the politicians here so they can think about changing their behavior.” When Ahmadinejad told the group that it was “high time for the media to also prepare itself for the new era,” you had the sensation that some in the audience, struggling to figure out a workable new business model, had heard that message before, although perhaps in a different context.
As a politician, Ahmadinejad plays a good net game. Every time he was challenged, he stepped up and volleyed right back. If people were worried about Iran in possession of nuclear material, well, what about all the nuclear weapons in the United States? If people wondered why it made sense for Iran to produce nuclear fuel rather than purchase it, well, such contracts were summarily canceled by Western countries, and France ended up instead providing “a bunch of ridiculous, silly cars like Peugeots... toys”
When the Washington Times’ Barbara Slavin asked about the detention of two AIDS activists and the firing of Iran’s central banker, Ahmadinejad dismissed those as the same questions he had been getting for four years of United Nations visits. “Whereas it seems to me... a lot of new things have happened,” he said. “I don’t think the main questions are the ones you touched on.”
There was a flap in Iran recently when Ahmadinejad’s vice president for tourism ventured to suggest that Iran was a friend to the Israeli people, even if it wanted to see the regime itself destroyed. Questioned on this, Ahmadinejad took the opportunity to discourse on freedom of speech -- Iranian-style. “In Iran, it’s free to express yourself,” he said. “Naturally, when it comes to the Zionist regime, there are different opinions. Everybody is opposed to the regime, but there are differences in how you approach it.”
On next year’s presidential election, Ahmadinejad was questioned about an expected challenge by parliament speaker Ali Larijani. Actually, Ahmadinejad said, he encouraged Larijani to run. Maybe politics is different that way in Iran -- but somehow I don’t think so.
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