Ahmadinejad in the Spotlight

When the cameras are rolling and the microphones are out, Mahmoud Admadinejad shows that he is media-savvy.

Not even Woody Allen, in his wildest Bananas days, would have chanced so hallucinatory a scene: Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the 21st  century's most prominent anti-Semite, warmly embraced by a dozen Hasidic rabbis with full-body hugs, three-cheek kisses, and smiles befitting a bar mitzvah. Minutes later, all agreed on the undesirability of Israel continuing to exist, with one rabbi kvelling over his new best friend: "God should give you long life and health and strength. . . ."

At first glance, this improbable moment, captured exclusively by WCBS-TV reporter Andrew Kirtzman and his cameraman, appeared simply another episode in the Theater of the Impossible that Iran's president now routinely brings to the world stage-an opéra bouffe to Jacques Chirac and Sergei Lavrov, a potential Götterdämmerung to Israel and American Jews and conservatives. Previous installments, some ongoing, have included the former mayor of Tehran's surprising victory in last year's presidential elections; his infamous call for the Jewish state to be "wiped off the map"; his quixotic denial of the most well-documented genocide in recorded history; and, most ominous, his country's broad-daylight assault, with three of the five permanent members on the UN Security Council volunteering as getaway drivers, on the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Yet the Hasidic hoedown, staged at the Intercontinental Hotel in midtown Manhattan, was, like much of Ahmadinejad's act, cleverly deceptive. This was no minion of machers, but a minuet of mashuggas: The rabbis were members of United Jews Against Zionism, a group whose numbers suggest they pose little threat to AIPAC-or even fans of Larry David-in their claims to represent American Jewry.

The meeting followed Ahmadinejad's first news conference with Western media, held the morning of September 21 in a cavernous conference room at the United Nations. Until August, Americans' views of the Iranian president amounted mostly to furtive glimpses. What they saw of him was filtered through Iran's state-run media and one or two overseas news agencies, which invariably select only the two or three most incendiary (i.e. newsworthy) sound bites for the early-morning satellite feeds on which U.S. news organizations rely heavily for their foreign coverage.

The results probably did not displease Ahmadinejad. With his tan sport jackets and open-necked collars, his upturned palms and eyebrows, his diminutive stature and broad, rubbery smile, he projects a "What-me-worry?" insouciance, a secularized Muslim harmlessness that belies his bellicosity in international relations and his fervent support for regional terrorist groups like Hizballah, which, until September 11, had killed more Americans than any other. His public appearances are staged as carefully as any modern politician's. They include tours of nuclear reactors, showcasing at once his country's technological sophistication and unbowed diplomatic posture, and speeches before provincial crowds so massive and adoring they recall, to many, Hitler's surging rearmament period.

In short-and despite serious domestic problems like growing drug abuse and a sputtering economy that has seen Iran's per capita GDP shrink to roughly one-third of those of fellow oil exporters Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar-Ahmadinejad has become the face of Iran and a major voice in media-age Islam. Last May, the New York Times reported Ahmadinejad's public popularity had "eclipsed" that of the country's supreme clerical leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khameini, "in a way never before seen in the 27-year history of the Islamic Republic."

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Then, in mid-August, came Ahmadinejad's sit-down with Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes", wherein the president surprised many viewers by appearing to give as good as he got in his exchanges with the nonagenarian who was once television's most fearsome interrogator. In the days surrounding his visit to the UN General Assembly, the Iranian leader conducted lengthy interviews with Time magazine and NBC News' Brian Williams, gave an audience to the American foreign policy establishment-as embodied in the Council on Foreign Relations, at least-and submitted, finally, to an uncontrolled Q-and-A session with three dozen or so reporters at the UN.

What emerges most strikingly from this new accessibility to Ahmadinejad, from his exposure to sustained questioning by the best and brightest in Western journalism, is, firstly, his rationality. This is no ranter and raver; rather he appears spry and businesslike, given to checking his watch and unfailingly unflappable, even jovial-though frequently his attempts at humor, given his politics, provoke more blood curdling than knee slapping. What's more, he displays a remarkable command of the full arsenal of rhetorical devices.

Among them, his clear favorite is the Socratic method, in which an individual facing questions responds by posing his own, usually in lieu of answering the earlier ones. In the NBC interview, for example, anchorman Williams posed 27 questions, subject Ahmadinejad 66. Most of them were of the What-about-America? variety. Thus when Williams inquired about the controversial remarks made recently by Pope Benedict XVI, Ahmadinejad responded with a survey of twentieth century bloodletting: "By whom? Right now, the wars that are around us in the world- who's behind them? Did you know, by any chance, that over one hundred-over a period of 110 years-the U.S. government went into 111 wars? Who were these people? Muslims? Christians? Jews?" And when Andrew Kirtzman waylaid the Iranian leader after his summit with anti-Zionist rabbis to ask about the objections of "mainstream" Jewish groups, which had dismissed the Intercontinental event as "an obscenity and a charade", Ahmadinejad responded calmly: "You represent Jews?"