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."