NEW YORK — Tormenting Western journalists must be among the few pleasures left to Iran's beleaguered president.
On Thursday afternoon in his New York hotel, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad punted questions about human rights, expressed sympathy for the downtrodden masses of Europe and America, and otherwise managed to wear down an august assembly of American media, from New Yorker editor David Remnick to CNN's Wolf Blitzer to your humble correspondent.
Among the platitudes and outright whoppers, a few nuggets stood out:
The political uprisings that have convulsed the Middle East this year "will soon reach Europe and the shores of America." Ahmadinejad cited recent riots in Britain as proof.
There may be homosexuals in Iran -- despite what he said at Columbia University in 2007 about there being none in Iran -- but it would be hard to know. "My position hasn't changed," Ahmadinejad said. "In Iran, homosexuality is looked down upon as an ugly deed... one of the ugliest behaviors in our society that is against the divine teachings of every faith." It is also punishable by death.
Iran would be happy to buy fuel from the United States for a reactor that produces medical isotopes, and in return would stop enriching uranium to 20 percent U-235 -- perilously close to weapons grade. But it will not stop producing low enriched uranium and will not give up its stockpiles, which if further enriched could yield material for several nuclear weapons.
At this session and in earlier interviews this week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Ahmadinejad has said repeatedly that there are no political prisoners in Iran. When I asked him why the two former officials who ran against him in 2009 -- former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi -- remain under house arrest after eight months and hundreds of others are in jail for their political activities, Ahmadinejad first said that my information was "incomplete" and then put the blame on Iran's judiciary branch, which is controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
"I cannot move judges, I cannot appoint judges," he said. "I am not in a position to be the spokesman for the judiciary."
The Iranian leader also insisted that the Iranian economy was thriving despite high inflation and unemployment. Although Ahmadinejad was initially applauded earlier this year for phasing out subsidies on gasoline and other staples, Iran's chief auditor charged earlier this month that the reforms -- which involve paying Iranians cash subsidies -- were actually costing Iran more.