How Not to Get Played by Ahmadinejad

A reporter's guide to interviewing the Iranian president.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming to New York again next week for the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly. If the past is any guide, he will try to use the U.S. press as a prop to distract from his shaky standing at home.

Since he was first elected in 2005, the Iranian president has perfected the art of slipping and sliding around even the most seasoned interviewers. Typically, he answers questions with questions and deflects criticism by attacking the United States or Israel.

On previous trips, Ahmadinejad has insisted that Iran has "real elections" -- despite copious evidence to the contrary -- and that Iran's economy does "not face serious problems," unlike the U.S. economy (another dubious assertion).

Reporters need to be armed with in-depth knowledge of Iran's economy, politics, and society -- and even then they may have difficulty getting Ahmadinejad to admit the truth. When I first interviewed him in 2006, he simply denied that the number of educated youth seeking visas to leave Iran had risen significantly since his election and that wealthy Iranians had moved billions of dollars to Dubai (both facts were true).

In advance of this year's trip, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran has prepared a press guide with suggested questions, useful background on issues and prior interviews, and examples of what to avoid. The organization urges reporters to focus on Iranian human rights abuses in the aftermath of last year's disputed presidential election and remind Ahmadinejad of Iran's obligations as a signatory of international conventions on human rights.

The guide advises interviewers to be as specific as possible to make it harder for the Iranian leader to go off on tangents and indulge in generalities. Among suggested questions: Why did Ahmadinejad give another high position to former Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, who has been indicted in connection with the detention of young demonstrators at Kahrizak prison last year? Many there were tortured and raped, and at least four young men died, including the son of a prominent official.

Instead of facing punishment, Mortazavi was made head of an anti-smuggling task force and was seated prominently at ceremonies marking the end of Ramadan led by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says interviewers need to be blunt, even rude, to "make Ahmadinejad stop and think. Ask him why he has so many problems with clerics in what is supposed to be an Islamic republic?" Khalaji, a former seminarian in Iran, suggests, "Ask him why the clerics hate him."

As the Iranian government has moved to crush the reformist Green Movement, divisions have grown within the ruling conservative camp. Many clerics object to Ahmadinejad for promoting a superstitious folk interpretation of Shiite Islam and for increasing the power of the Revolutionary Guard over the clergy.

Others oppose him for giving high-level posts to an in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who openly champions Iranian nationalism over Islam -- a no-no in the Islamic Republic. After last year's election, Ahmadinejad named Mashaei Iran's first vice president. When the supreme leader objected, Ahmadinejad made Mashaei his chief of staff. Recently, the president appointed Mashaei his special Middle East envoy. Rumor has it that Ahmadinejad wants Mashaei -- whose son is married to Ahmadinejad's daughter -- to run for president in 2013 in part so that Ahmadinejad can seek a third term in 2017. Iran's Constitution forbids more than two consecutive presidential terms.

Khalaji suggests that reporters ask Ahmadinejad: "Is it true that Mashaei wants to be president and you want to be Iran's [Vladimir] Putin?"

Mehdi Jedinia, an Iranian-American journalist who previously worked for the Mehr news agency in Tehran, says someone should ask Ahmadinejad how he would manage if he didn't have Israel or the United States to blame for Iran's problems.

Jedinia also suggests asking Ahmadinejad why he has encouraged Iranian women to have more children given the country's economic woes, including high unemployment.

Several analysts have urged reporters to avoid questions about the Holocaust, which rarely produce anything new and put Ahmadinejad on comfortable ground. Focusing on current issues has worked better; most recently, international pressure led Iranian authorities to free American hiker Sarah Shourd and convinced Iran not to stone to death Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman convicted of adultery.

Reporters who do not have to fear imprisonment or exile for doing their jobs -- unlike the more than 30 journalists still in Iranian jails and the hundreds forced to flee Iran since June 2009 -- have a duty to ask Ahmadinejad tough questions, says Hadi Ghaemi, director of the rights group that produced the press guide.

"Inside Iran, journalists and human rights defenders do not have the opportunity to hold him accountable," Ghaemi said. "When he travels abroad we all have an obligation to do so."

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How Anti-Semitism Helped Create Israel

At a desperate moment in World War I, British elites appealed to what they saw as the monolithic, all-powerful forces of "international Jewry" to turn the tide of the conflict -- and promised them Palestine.

On Nov. 2, 1917, the British cabinet promised to support "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." Today, we consider the Balfour Declaration, as that promise has been known ever since, to be the foundation stone of modern Israel. But the views and motives of the British politicians who approved the epochal document were hardly simple, let alone pure.

What British leaders wanted more than anything in November 1917 was to win World War I -- all other goals were secondary. Victory, however, seemed increasingly distant at the time. After three and a half terrible years of war, Britain's allies were shaky: French armies had mutinied, Italian armies had been catastrophically defeated, and the Russian Army stood upon the brink of total collapse. The United States had joined the conflict the previous June, but U.S. soldiers had not yet arrived in Europe in numbers sufficient to make much difference. Meanwhile, Germany was preparing to launch another great offensive on the Western Front.

In these circumstances, British leaders grasped at straws. They thought, for example, that they might bribe Germany's ally, Turkey, to leave the war. They offered territory and money. Turkey was interested but -- in the end, after numerous secret, back-channel meetings in Switzerland and elsewhere -- would not bite.

The British also sought new allies. In particular, they hoped to successfully attract to their side the one great power, as they mistakenly referred to it, that had remained on the sidelines: the forces of what they called "international Jewry." During the lead-up to the Balfour Declaration, Britain's leaders engaged in a sustained effort to woo Jewish support. With the declaration itself, they offered the engagement ring.

British leaders drew primarily on two anti-Semitic canards: that Jews simultaneously commanded the U.S. financial system and held the strings controlling Russian pacifism. In other words, they believed that American Jews could bring the United States into the war and that Russian Jews could keep their country from dropping out of it. They also believed that Jewish money could help finance the war effort. Moreover, they believed that all Jews were Zionists (which they weren't). That is why the bribe -- or rather, the engagement ring -- took the form of the Balfour Declaration.

One of the most influential true believers of these anti-Semitic misapprehensions was Gerald Henry Fitzmaurice, who had served before the war as a British dragoman, interpreting and translating Ottoman interests to his superiors at the consulate in what was then known as Constantinople. There he had formed the opinion that Jews and Dönmes -- or "crypto-Jews," whose ancestors had converted to Christianity, but who continued to practice the old faith in secret -- controlled the Turkish government. Their great goal, he thought, was to hand Palestine over to the Zionists. With the war on, Fitzmaurice had an epiphany: Britain should promise Palestine to the Jews right now. In return, the Dönmes would withdraw their support from the Turkish government, which would inevitably collapse.

Fitzmaurice, now attached to the intelligence division at the British Admiralty, lobbied Hugh James O'Bierne, an experienced and well-respected British diplomat. O'Beirne responded positively to the idea. On Feb. 28, 1916, he composed the first Foreign Office memo linking the fate of Palestine with both Jewish interests and British chances of victory in World War I.

"It has been suggested to me," he wrote to his colleagues, "that if we could offer the Jews an arrangement as to Palestine which would strongly appeal to them, we might conceivably be able to strike a bargain with them as to withdrawing their support from the Young Turk government which would then automatically collapse." O'Beirne went on to endorse this ridiculous plan.

As O'Beirne was penning his memo, another British Foreign Office figure was mulling the same issues. Sir Mark Sykes had just finished negotiating the infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement, by which Britain and France divided up the Ottoman Empire between them, despite the fact that they had not yet defeated the Ottomans. Palestine, they stipulated, should be governed by an international consortium of powers -- except for its northern part, which would come under French control. In March 1916, Sykes and French diplomat François Georges-Picot visited Russia, their eastern ally, to acquaint officials there with the terms of their understanding.

Picot, however, found his mission complicated by O'Beirne's new suggestion that Britain should offer Palestine to the Jews. The British Foreign Office had just indicated to the Russians that it was favorable to this recommendation. The Russians had little difficulty with the new proposition -- so long as they got Constantinople, they were satisfied. But Picot, speaking for France, had serious issues with the proposal. His country had longstanding interests on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, which he feared were endangered by an agreement that did not give France direct control over parts of Palestine.

Sykes, however, had changed his tune. After reading O'Beirne's memo and some other materials, he concluded that the Zionists represented "the key of the situation," by which he meant the key to victory in the war. "With 'Great Jewry' against us," he warned, there would be no possibility of victory. This was because Zionism was a powerful if subterranean force in the world -- in his words, it was "atmospheric, international, cosmopolitan, subconscious and unwritten, nay often unspoken."

Sykes now painted a dire picture of what would befall the allies if they did not endorse a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It would mean "optimism in Berlin, dumps in London, unease in Paris, resistance to last ditch in C'ople, dissension in Cairo, Arabs all squabbling among themselves," he wrote.

Sykes was only expressing what most in the Foreign Office already believed. Back in London, Robert Cecil, the parliamentary secretary of state for foreign affairs -- who also happened to be the son of former Prime Minister Lord Salisbury and cousin of the present foreign secretary, Lord Balfour -- was writing to his colleagues at just this time: "I do not think it is easy to exaggerate the international power of the Jews."

As for the British government itself, philo- and anti-Semitism mixed uneasily in the minds of its principal members, most importantly Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Foreign Secretary Balfour. Lloyd George, who had been raised among devout Welshmen, once remarked during the war that he was more familiar with the geography of Palestine than that of Scotland and that the battles there interested him far more than the battles in France and Belgium. Yet this Christian Zionist, as scholars have sometimes termed him, once described his colleague Herbert Samuel as "a greedy, ambitious and grasping Jew with all the worst characteristics of his race."

Balfour also operated under similarly conflicting stereotypes regarding Jews. He had been moved to tears by British Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann's recital of the ills done to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, he told Weizmann that he shared the "anti-Semitic postulates" of the virulent Cosima Wagner, who would become one of the first patrons of Adolf Hitler. Balfour apparently did not believe that Jews could be assimilated into Gentile British society.

In fact, the sole Jewish member of Lloyd George's government, Edwin Montagu, strongly opposed the Balfour Declaration because he thought it would encourage anti-Semites throughout the world to expel Jews from their countries. "Palestine will become the world's ghetto," he warned.

Zionists did not take this argument seriously. However, they encouraged the British governing elite in its belief that Jewish influence was a global force. On June 10, 1917, Weizmann warned the Foreign Office that Germany was about to issue a Balfour Declaration of its own, and Zionists were increasingly beginning to question "whether [they] were to realize their aims through Germany and Turkey or through Great Britain," he wrote. While Weizmann declared that he was "absolutely loyal" to Britain, he implied that other Jews would not be so dependable.

In October and November 1917, as the British cabinet debated the declaration, ministers voiced this very fear. So they decided to issue their own statement of support for a Jewish homeland first. "Many [gentiles] have a residual belief in the power and the unity of Jewry," one of Weizmann's followers observed many years later. "We suffer for it, but it is not wholly without its compensations.… To exploit it delicately and deftly belongs to the art of the Jewish diplomat." Few exploited it more deftly than Chaim Weizmann.

Of course, British officials had other important reasons to favor the Balfour Declaration. They thought Britain must control Palestine because of its proximity to the Suez Canal, Britain's economic windpipe. They thought British control of Palestine would allow the construction of a railway that would run from the northern city of Acre through Iraq to the Persian Gulf, facilitating trade with India. For these reasons, an autonomous Palestine within the British Empire, along the lines of South Africa or Canada, suited these men very well. They were also cognizant of the skills that Jewish immigrants could bring into the region, and sympathetic to the ancient claim to Palestine that Zionists invoked.

However, an even larger portion of their minds was occupied by anti-Semitic prejudices and stereotypes. Paradoxically, these beliefs only caused them to embrace the Balfour Declaration more readily and served as a crucial ingredient in determining British support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. History has never been the same.

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