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."