NEW YORK — When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met the chieftains of the American media Monday morning, it only took a few minutes before he was asked about the U.S. presidential campaign, one in which the threat of nuclear weapons-building by Iran has figured so prominently.
Since Republican candidate Mitt Romney has been outspoken in declaring he would support Israeli military action against Iranian nuclear facilities, asked CNN correspondent Erin Burnett, did that mean Ahmadinejad would be supporting President Barack Obama's re-election? No, he replied through an interpreter, "We do believe that the U.S. elections are a domestic issue and we will not get in the middle of that at all." Then he cracked a smile before adding, "I believe the people of the U.S. are not a war-seeking people."
Later, Ahmadinejad returned to the question of the U.S. relationship with Israel. Asked about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent public rift with the Obama administration over its refusal to set clear "red lines" for Iran on the nuclear issue, Ahmadinejad responded with a pointed lecture about how the United States should not be allowing Israel to dictate its policies. "Who is it who determines what the U.S. government must do? Is it the Zionists...? The U.S. government must make such vital decisions under the influence of Zionists?" Netanyahu's insistence, he said, "should be seen as a great insult and taken as such by the people of the United States. Who are these Zionists to dictate to the U.S.?"
And so it went for more than an hour and fifteen minutes here in New York, where, in the unlikely setting of a hotel meeting room festooned with lacy green hydrangeas, Iran's combative president held forth on everything from what he saw as the impending breakup of the European Union to the historical greatness of the 10,000-year-old Persian people to the whereabouts of writer Salman Rushdie. In town for the U.N. General Assembly and seemingly determined to flout U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's plea to avoid inflammatory rhetoric, Ahmadinejad sparred calmly with the likes of Fareed Zakaria and Christiane Amanpour over whether his country is serious about negotiations on the nuclear issue, while at the same time throwing in insulting zingers about everything from what he claimed was Israel's lack of historic legitimacy to U.S. failings on a variety of subjects.
Trim and smiling at times in one of his trademark gray suits worn with an open-collar shirt, Ahmadinejad at one point lectured New Yorker editor David Remnick about the United States, calling it a country where "double standards" meant "insulting a divine figure" was easily explained away -- an apparent reference to the video about the Prophet Mohammed that has inspired riots across the Muslim world -- while "you cannot even question historical events," which appeared to be a cryptic allusion to Ahmadinejad's oft-stated and incorrect claim that Holocaust denialism is a crime here. When Remnick pressed him on whether the religious fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie remained in effect, Ahmadinejad demanded, "Where is he now?" When Remnick said New York, the Iranian leader responded, "Is he in the U.S.?... You shouldn't broadcast this for his own safety."
Throughout his performance, Ahmadinejad didn't seem to care that his canned jokes were lost on his audience, an assembled crowd of America's journalistic powerhouses, from the editors of the New York Times and Washington Post to Time magazine and Reuters, who sat stern-faced in the seats they had been assigned by the Iranians around the square table. (Sample joke: Why do you still call the international powers negotiating with Iran on nuclear issues the P5+1? Even Iranian schoolchildren know that equals 6. Response? Dead silence.) Even when he bobbled a question from Matthew Winkler, editor in chief of Bloomberg News, and seemed not to know how many barrels of oil a day Iran now produces, Ahmadinejad seemed unperturbed. Most surprisingly, he never even said the names Benjamin Netanyahu or Barack Obama or Bashar al-Assad, though he was questioned about them over and over.