CBS reporter: But the American people, sir, believe that your country [Iran] is a terrorist nation, exporting terrorism in the world. You must have known that visiting the World Trade Center site would infuriate many Americans.
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad: Well, I’m amazed. How can you speak for the whole of the American nation? You are representing the media and you’re a reporter. The American nation is made up of 300 million people. There are different points of view over there.
The new “Hitler,” at least for a while, has lodged in a prosaic midtown Manhattan hotel. Contrary to a plethora of demonizing myths, this Persian werewolf did not evade his abode to eat kids for breakfast in Central Park. Instead, he turned on a carefully calibrated public relations charm offensive. Whatever his polemical views, for a now-seasoned head of state like Ahmadinejad to turn astonishing US disinformation on Iran, the Middle East and US foreign policy for his own advantage ended up as a string of slam-dunks.
Articulate, evasive, manipulative, the Iranian president – even lost in translation – was especially skillful in turning US corporate media’s hysteria upside down consistently to paint those in the administration of President George W Bush as incorrigible warmongers. Both at the National Press Club, via video-conference, and live at Columbia University, Ahmadinejad even had the luxury of joking about fabled Western “freedom of information” – as so many are still “trying to prevent people from talking.”
He scored major points among the target audience that really matters: worldwide Muslim public opinion. Contrasting with a plethora of corrupt Arab leaders, Ahmadinejad has been carefully positioning himself as a Muslim folk hero capable of standing up to Western arrogance and defending the rights of the weak (the Palestinians). The way he deflected US ire on the enemy’s own turf will only add to his standing.
At the United Nations this week, a remix of 2002 couldn’t be more inevitable: it’s the same soundtrack of tortuous diplomacy with the bongos and congas and special effects of war beefing up the background. By going on preemptive public relations, Ahmadinejad was clever enough not to commit the same mistake of the previous, “invisible” Hitler, Saddam Hussein.
He was also clever in preempting ear-splitting rumors of a next war: “Talk about war is basically a propaganda tool.” One of his key points may not have made an impact in the US, but resonated widely around the world, and not only in the Muslim street: “We oppose the way the US government tries to rule the world”; there are “more humane methods of establishing peace.” He assured that no Iranian weapons are flowing into Iraq, adding that “regional countries in the Middle East don’t need outside interference.”
On uranium enrichment, he repeatedly stressed that it is Iran’s right, as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to conduct a “legal” and “peaceful” nuclear program. “Why should a nation depend on another?” But if the US would engage in peace talks, so would Iran: “International law is equal to everyone.” As for the US and France, they “are not the world” – a reference to both the Bush administration’s and the French saber-rattling. “France is a very cultured society, it would not support war.” Humanitarian imperialist French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was summarily brushed aside: he needs to attain “higher maturity.”
On Israel, Ahmadinejad said, “We do not recognize a regime based on discrimination, occupation and expansionism,” and he said that country “last week attacked Syria and last year attacked Lebanon”; pretty much what most of the Middle East agrees with. He may have granted that the Holocaust did take place, but the world needs “more research on it.” The Holocaust is not his main point: it always serves as an intro to one of his key themes – why should the Palestinians pay the price for something that happened in Europe? He said he wanted a “clear” answer. No one deigned to provide it.
To put in perspective the Iranian hostage crisis in the early days of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, he said one would need to “go back to US intervention in Iran since 1953.” His hosts preferred to change the subject. Humming non-stop in the background noise was the “wipe Israel of the map” myth. No one had the intellectual decency to point out that what he really said, in Farsi, in a speech on October 2005 to an annual anti-Zionist conference in Iran, was that “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” He was doing no more than quoting the late ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – hoping that an unfair (toward Palestine) regime would be replaced by another one more equitable; he was not threatening to nuke Israel. Warmongers anyway don’t bother to check the facts.
You’ve got to change your evil ways
US corporate media’s treatment of the new “Hitler” seemed to have been scripted by the same ghostwriter lodged in the same (White) House. On 60 Minutes, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) was firing on all cylinders for a casus belli – from “There’s no doubt Iran is providing the IEDs” (improvised explosive devices, in Iraq) to “Why don’t you just stop denying that you’re building a nuclear bomb?” Ahmadinejad was bemused, to say the least. CNN for its part could not resist proclaiming, “His state even sponsors terrorism … in some cases even against US troops in Iraq.”
Ahmadinejad succinctly unveiled to the Associated Press the reasons for so much warmongering – in a way that even a kid would understand: “I believe that some of the talk in this regard arises first of all from anger. Secondly, it serves the electoral purposes domestically in this country. Third, it serves as a cover for policy failures over Iraq.”
An even more appalling measure of Western arrogance – also speaking volumes about “us” when confronted with the incomprehensible “other” – is the diatribe with which the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, chose to “greet” his guest, a head of state. Bollinger, supposedly an academic, spoke about confronting “the mind of evil.” His crass behavior got him 15 minutes of fame. Were President Bush to be greeted in the same manner in any university in the developing world – and motives would abound also to qualify him as a “cruel, petty dictator” – the Pentagon would have instantly switched to let’s-bomb-them-with-democracy mode.
Ahmadinejad, to his credit, played it cool. Stressing, in a quirky fashion, his “academic” credentials, he unleashed a poetic rant on “science as a divine gift” just to plunge once again into the Palestinian tragedy. He stressed how Iran “is friendly with the Jewish people” – which is a fact (at least 30,000 Jews live undisturbed in Iran). Then back to the key point: Why are the Palestinians paying the price for something they had nothing to do with? Iran has a “humanitarian proposal” to solve the problem – a referendum where Palestinians would choose their own political destiny.
In the absence of informed debate, Ahmadinejad stressed his points the way he wanted to. Iran does not need a nuclear bomb. Iran does not want to manufacture a nuclear bomb. But telling other countries what they can and cannot do is another matter entirely. He is more than aware that the nuclear dossier is “a political issue” – a question of “two or three powers who think they can monopolize science and knowledge.” It’s up to a sovereign Iran to decide whether it needs nuclear fuel. “Why should we need fuel from you? You don’t even give us spare parts for aircraft.”
He also stressed that Iran is a victim of terrorism – a reference to the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a micro-terrorist group by any other name, formerly protected by Saddam, now supported by the Bush administration; but he was also referring to destabilizing black ops by US special forces in the strategically crucial provinces of Khuzestan and Balochistan.
Ahmadinejad was not questioned in detail on internal repression, intimidation of independent journalists, what his Interior Ministry is up to, from a crackdown on women not wearing the veil properly to more sinister, unsubstantiated “collaboration with America” charges. When executions were mentioned, he quipped, “Don’t you have capital punishment in the US?” – and defended them on the ground that these were drug smugglers.
Nobody questioned him on his disastrous economic policies, on the competence of his ministers, on an embryonic pact between Iran and Saudi Arabia to prevent another war in the Middle East, on the upcoming, pivotal summit of the Caspian littoral states in Tehran where Ahmadinejad, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Vladimir Putin will discuss what happens next – from technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear program to Bush’s warmongering impetus. Anyway, Ahmadinejad made it clear: Iran is “ready to negotiate with all countries.” The same could not be said about the Bush White House.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon would have liked this UN General Assembly to discuss seriously climate change and the looming water wars. But nobody – not even diplomats – is really paying attention. It’s all about Bush against the “new Hitler.” Gaza is being collectively punished, and Tony “invade Iraq” Blair bleats platitudes about “peace.” About 100,000 brave monks are in the streets of Yangon defying Myanmar’s military junta – and the UN is not even listening (“Bring democracy to the Burmese people,” anyone?). It’s just war, war, war.
New Yorkers may have shown the new “Hitler” a very ugly face, but at least they should know the war remix’s hard sell is not dubbed in Farsi.
Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007).