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?"
As necessary, Ahmadinejad will, like many politicians, combine this approach with two other favorites: vagueness and evasion. At the UN news conference, a female journalist, speaking in English with a foreign accent, raised the issue of Iran's compliance with Security Council Resolution 1701, which established the ceasefire in this summer's Israeli-Hizballah war, and prohibits the transfer of arms to any entity in Lebanon except its elected government. "You have twice evaded saying clearly whether you plan to respect that resolution and implement it", the reporter said. "So can you kindly be forward and say will you stop giving Hizballah arms and will you implement that resolution?" (The reporter then muddied her work by posing a second, unrelated question, about the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister; subjects often respond to multiple queries by choosing the one they like best, although in this case, Ahmadinejad-surprisingly-did not.)
"Are you a representative of the UN?" the Iranian asked with his toothy smile. "I mean, you are definitely very powerful in making sure that the resolutions here are enforced." Some in the room thought he was actually flirting with his questioner, who was not unattractive. "I am a journalist at the UN", she replied. "Or are you against Hizballah?" Ahmadinejad countered. The lady held her ground. "No, sir, I am asking whether you plan to respect a resolution that clearly demands of all countries to stop armament to any party in Lebanon other than the legitimate government."
Now the jousting was over; it was time for Ahmadinejad to respond substantively to his interlocutor's forcefully posed question-or at least for him to appear to do so. Without pausing, he reiterated previous professions to support "peace and permanent stability" in Lebanon, then pledged: "We will fall short of no measure in promoting this goal." Given that Iran has tried continuously since the ceasefire to re-arm Hizballah-so far without success, say senior Israeli officials-and given likely plans to keep trying, Ahmadinejad's use of language here was masterful: Rather than allow himself to be held to a strict standard of compliance with a specific measure carrying the weight of international law, he made no reference to the resolution itself, nor to laws, or compliance with them, at all. By committing Iran only to "fall short of no measure", he could later argue he meant the "measures" Iran might take, not those by which it might be judged.
Other techniques come with equal ease. He is clearly no stranger to the filibuster. His response at the hour-long news conference to the very first question, which asked what "you can do" to assure the international community "you will not make a nuclear bomb" and "not seek to destroy any country, including Israel", lasted 14 minutes and featured 17 counter-questions; most of them stemmed from his views on "Palestine" and what was, in his view, the intolerable "displacement of a whole nation and its replacement by another group, and the establishment of a state by the second group to rule the fate of the first group."
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His answer also revealed Ahmadinejad's fondness for one final rhetorical device worthy of mention: prevarication. Not surprisingly, this trickiest, most dangerous of techniques was reserved for the most important of subject matters: the Bush Administration's paroxysmal drive to get the other Western powers to make good on their joint threat, contained in Security Council Resolution 1696, to punish Iran with economic sanctions if Tehran does not suspend its renegade uranium enrichment program.
Throughout his American tour, Ahmadinejad made a number of demonstrably false statements about his country's cooperation with, and the formal findings of, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, the UN nuclear watchdog. To Brian Williams, for example, Ahmadinejad asserted that the IAEA's reports "indicate that Iran has had no deviation" from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, and added flatly: "We have said on numerous occasions that our activities are for peaceful purposes. The agency's cameras videotape all the activities that we have." And to the reporters assembled at the U.N., Ahmadinejad claimed: "The IAEA has published many reports, numerous reports, saying that they do not see any violation of the treaty requirements of NPT by the Iranian government . . . We have not hidden anything. We are working transparently."