Dispatch

Breakfast with Ahmadinejad

Iran's president meets the press.

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.

At times, the session had the feel of a very awkward talk show, one with no real followups and where the host didn't get to interrupt even if the guest refused to answer the question. When CNN's Zakaria started in on the nuclear issue by asking whether in the case of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran would "regard that as an attack by the U.S.," Ahmadinejad never mentioned the United States in his answer. The war talk, he said -- and it was a theme he would refer to several times in the course of the meeting -- was merely a result of the fact that "the Zionists see themselves at a dead end" and are trying to stir up trouble. "I don't believe it's anything of utmost importance at all."

His line about Israel at a "dead end" immediately kicked up a media furor, reminiscent of Ahmadinejad's previous visits to New York for the U.N. meetings when he once memorably called Israel a "tumor" and suggested it should be wiped off the map. In Monday's version, he cast his opposition to Israel in historic terms. "Iran has been around for the last 7,000, 10,000 years. They [the Israelis] have been occupying those territories for the last 60 to 70 years, with the support and force of the Westerners. They have no roots there in history," he said. Later, he added, "we don't even count them as any part of any equation for Iran. During a historical phase, they [the Israelis] represent minimal disturbances that come into the picture and are then eliminated."

Reuters quickly reported the remarks, which U.S. political figures just as quickly rushed to condemn. "Characteristically disgusting, offensive, and outrageous," said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council.

It was Ahmadinejad's eighth straight visit to New York for the U.N. meetings, and his eighth straight such meeting with American media leaders, which he was quick to point out. Under the Iranian constitution, Ahmadinejad is barred from seeking a third presidential term in that country's elections next year. But if this is to be his valedictory appearance at the U.N. General Assembly's opening session, he clearly is not yet eager to leave the center stage he has occupied to the chagrin and anger of his U.S. hosts for the last eight years. Toward the end of the meeting, I asked whether Ahmadinejad would in fact be leaving politics at the end of his constitutionally mandated two terms next year, and if the Iranian government was prepared to guarantee that "free and fair" elections would be held to succeed him, unlike those that sparked the "Green Revolution" nearly four years ago.

While he can't seek another presidential term, the 55-year-old Iranian leader said, he could still return to New York in future years as a member of the Iranian delegation to the General Assembly. It seemed to be a warning of sorts, though there were no groans from the audience. As for his future, "I am a member of the scientific board of the university," Ahmadinejad said, not specifying which one, "but that doesn't mean I will be separating myself from politics."

Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Dispatch

China's Brainwashed Youth

The protests against Japan didn't get us our islands back, but they made one thing clear: The people are puppets of the Chinese Communist Party.

SHANGHAI — Ever since the 1970s, I have known that the Chinese people are the freest and most democratic people in the world. Each year at my elementary school in Shanghai, the teachers mentioned this fact repeatedly in ethics and politics classes. Our textbooks, feigning innocence, asked us if freedom and democracy in capitalist countries could really be what they proclaimed it to be. Then there would be all kinds of strange logic and unsourced examples, but because I always counted silently to myself in those classes instead of paying attention, the government's project was basically wasted on me. By secondary school and college, my mind was unusually hard to brainwash.

Even so, during my college years, I still hated Japan. I felt that the Japanese had killed so many of my countrymen, the vast majority of them civilians, that it wasn't enough that they had eventually surrendered. It was only after studying Japanese and reading additional historical materials that I gradually understood the true face of history: When the Japanese army invaded China in 1931, Mao Zedong, in those days still a guerrilla fighter, turned and ran. Chiang Kai-shek, China's nominal president at the time, stayed behind to fight the Japanese in his wartime capital of Chongqing, but Mao's Communist Party fled to the north to establish a base of anti-Japanese resistance in the provinces of Shaanxi, Gansu, and Ningxia, where there was no Japanese army at all.

Today's youth are repeating the same growth experience I had, but unlike my generation, whose hatred of Japan remained at the verbal level, they have taken the streets to demonstrate.

Even though China's constitution permits demonstrations, the government prohibits them except in special circumstances. Anyone familiar with Chinese history knows that when Chinese law says one thing, it might mean the opposite. For example, Chinese law says that everyone is equal before the law, but in fact Hu Jintao and his colleagues are more equal than everyone else.

So, Chinese young people today ought to thank the Japanese government, for if it hadn't purchased the Diaoyu Islands, the Chinese government wouldn't have opened the net a little, allowing them to take to the streets last week. The demonstrators chanted monotonous and boring slogans, like telling the Japanese to get the hell out of the Diaoyu Islands; plainclothes cops intermingled with the marchers, keeping in nervous contact through their earpieces. Protesters even carried images of Mao, who died in 1976, though I wish he had died much earlier.

Many of the young marchers were terribly excited. For decades, TV shows about the Anti-Japanese War of 1931-1945 had distorted historical facts and turned the Japanese into a stupid, aggressive, cruel race of cockroaches that needed to be exterminated. Amusingly, the Chinese actors portraying those Japanese devils only spoke Chinese, bowing and scraping shamelessly, their every move no different from those of corrupt officials throughout China today.

Now, the Chinese government feels that it's not enough to smear the enemy through television alone, and the time has come to allow young people to demonstrate, a chance young people welcome because through their patriotic actions they can prove their worth in this world. Many of them are ordinarily very humble, drawing a low salary and struggling in expensive cities. They can't afford to buy homes, have a family, raise children, or take care of their parents, and no one pays any attention to them. But now, these trampled marionettes have finally made the leap to the center of the political stage, so they willingly allow their strings to be pulled.

But the Chinese government's brainwashing education is more sophisticated than this. For a red regime to stand so long, to match Western countries in capitalistic indulgence, it needs to surpass the crude Soviet model. And sure enough, after the smashing and burning, the propaganda machine flung out the slogan "rational patriotism": It's the same old follow-the-party's-instructions, but it's a different era and the party must be hidden, which means that it must emphasize the fashionable word "rational." The Communist Party and its Propaganda Ministry have always kept pace with the times.

In this delicately authoritarian society, "rational patriotism" means respecting the rules set up by the totalitarians. This sort of rationality, and this sort of patriotism, would be familiar to Joseph Goebbels. Yet the brainwashed patriotic youth of the mainland don't understand this. The Hong Kongers who protested the "patriotic education" imposed by the mainland government really know how to protest -- unlike on the mainland, their demonstrations were truly spontaneous and did not have government support. No wonder domestic news outlets did not report on them.

Strangely, on the microblogs, a surprising number of well-known intellectuals strongly supported the rational patriotism slogan. I found this baffling at first, but then it hit me: When they sat in ethics class in primary school, they must not have had my fondness for counting to really high numbers.

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