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.
Kevan Harris, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins who studies the Iranian economy, quoted the auditor as saying that more than 50 percent of the funds used to pay Iranians $42 a month came from the Central Bank and other "illegal" sources, not from higher state prices for energy and other previously subsidized goods.
Asked about this Thursday, Ahmadinejad noted that the IMF had praised the reforms; the critique of the chief auditor was merely his own "opinion" and not necessarily "correct."
Perhaps channeling his inner Ron Paul, the Iranian president also suggested that the United States would be better off if it brought all its military forces home. Iran, he said, would police the Persian Gulf and ensure the flow of oil.
But despite his confident manner, this is not the Ahmadinejad of yore.
The Iranian president is under a blistering assault at home on matters ranging from insubordination to heresy and corruption. He is so weak that he could not even manage to arrange the release of two jailed Americans before his arrival in New York. A dinner with American Iran experts that was scheduled for Thursday night was abruptly cancelled last week out of apparent concern that the two -- Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal -- would not be out by then. Twisting the knife, the Iranian judiciary -- led by the brother of an Ahmadinejad rival -- let them go hours after the president had landed in the United States.
The release of the two was supposed to be a goodwill gesture, but Ahmadinejad undercut whatever public relations victory he hoped to achieve by delivering a classic anti-American speech at the U.N. on Thursday. Last year, he suggested that the United States was behind the Sept. 11 attacks; this year, he said the U.S. killed Osama bin Laden so the truth would never be known. Most of the diplomats in the hall walked out
One relatively moderate Iranian newspaper, Mardom-Salari, writing on the eve of the Iranian's U.N. address, suggested that Ahmadinejad's seven consecutive trips to New York -- a record for an Iranian president -- were a waste of money and time.
"Visits are not important in themselves; it is more important how we can influence others," the paper wrote, according to Mideast Mirror, a translation service. "We should not sacrifice quality for quantity. What is important and beneficial is planning, which is totally ignored in Iranian foreign diplomacy."
Ahmadinejad's decline began, ironically, with his disputed re-election two years ago. The huge protests and violent government crackdown that followed made it easier for foreign countries, particularly Europeans, to sanction Iran over its nuclear program, citing human rights abuses.
Domestically, the elections severely damaged Ahmadinejad's legitimacy even as they initially forced Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to clasp the president even closer to his chest.
Ahmadinejad's efforts to take advantage of what he saw as the leader's dependence by firing cabinet ministers such as Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki eventually backfired. Things came to a head in April, when Khamenei blocked Ahmadinejad's efforts to dismiss Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi. Ahmadinejad sulked at home for 11 days.
Having vanquished the so-called "seditionists" -- members of Iran's reform movement who supported Mousavi and Karroubi in 2009 -- the Iranian media and authorities have now gone after "deviationists" with equal force and venom. The targets are the supporters of the president and his chief aide and in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.The most serious charges were leveled last week when a businessman close to Mashaei was arrested after allegedly forging letters of credit worth $2.8 billion to buy a controlling interest in a giant steel company undergoing privatization.
The target of the investigation, Amir Mansour Khosravi, has amassed billions of dollars during the Ahmadinejad administration from a modest start as the owner of a mineral water factory, according to the Financial Times. Iranian media have printed a letter attributed to Mashaei that allegedly urges two government ministers to allow Khosravi to buy half the shares of the steel company with "the agreement of the president."
There have been rumors that Mashaei was detained for a week last month for interrogation. Other unconfirmed stories -- some would say smears -- implausibly link him or relatives to the Mujaheddin-e Khalq, a Marxist-Islamist group that found refuge in Iraq in the 1980s and that is a deadly foe of the Iranian regime. Mashaei accompanied Ahmadinejad to New York this week but has kept an uncharacteristically low profile.
Ahmadinejad's loss of power in his second term follows a pattern in Iranian politics. What distinguishes him from his predecessors, according to Mehdi Khalaji, an expert on Iranian clerical politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is that he tried to invent a "new branch of Islamic radicalism" that rejects clerical dominance. That is a tall order in a system that gives ultimate decision-making to a cleric -- the supreme jurisprudent or velayet-e faqih -- and that allows him to control the state through a series of interlocking councils dominated by clerics he appoints.
Other Iran experts -- and ordinary Iranians -- say the current struggle has little to do with religion or ideology. The competition now is over preventing the president from using his remaining powers of patronage and networks of influence to stack the political deck in favor of his supporters in parliamentary elections next spring and presidential elections in 2013. Among his potential successors is Mohammad-Baqr Qalibaf, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards Air Force and now mayor of Tehran.
"There is no difference between Ahmadi [the president], the leader [Khamenei] and Qalibaf," said an Iranian in Tehran who asked not to be named for reasons of personal safety. "All of them follow power and money."