By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
"For hundreds of years, we've lived in friendship and brotherhood with the people of Iraq," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the National Press Club yesterday.
That's true -- as long as you don't count the little unpleasantness of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when a million people died, some by poison gas. And you'd also have to overlook 500 years of fighting during the Ottoman Empire.
But never mind that: Ahmadinejad was on a roll.
"Our people are the freest people in the world," said the man whose government executes dissidents, jails academics and stones people to death.
"The freest women in the world are women in Iran," he continued, neglecting to mention that Iranian law treats a woman as half of a man.
"In our country," judged the man who shuts down newspapers and imprisons journalists, "freedom is flowing at its highest level."
And if you believe that, he has a peaceful civilian nuclear program he wants to sell you.
Much of officialdom spent yesterday condemning Columbia University for hosting the Iranian leader while he visits the United Nations this week. There were similar protests outside the National Press Building in Washington, where reporters gathered to question Ahmadinejad in a videoconference. "Don't give him any press!" shouted one woman.
But that objection misses a crucial point: Without listening to Ahmadinejad, how can the world appreciate how truly nutty he is?
"In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country," he informed the Columbia audience.
It takes time to come up with profound thoughts such as that, so Ahmadinejad was understandably in a hurry yesterday. His appearance at the press club was delayed 10 minutes when he didn't show up on time at the television studio in New York. Then his delegation informed the press club, mid-rant, that he would have to leave 15 minutes early so that he would have time to pray before his Columbia appearance. The prayer evidently missed the mark, for he was greeted at Columbia with a lengthy condemnation by President Lee Bollinger. He called Ahmadinejad a "petty and cruel dictator" and ended with the thought that "today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for."
The reception was rather friendlier at the press club, where the sole questioner was moderator Jerry Zremski of the Buffalo News. He introduced Ahmadinejad as "one of the most newsworthy heads of state in the world" and chose written questions submitted by the audience such as "Do you plan on running for reelection in two years?"
Ahmadinejad, wearing open collar and glasses, lost his audience at the press club almost immediately. After only one sentence of his speech, the translator stopped translating. "The president is reciting verses from the holy Koran in Arabic," she explained. Completing his verses, he launched into 20 minutes of cheap sentiment.
"I believe we all believe strongly that it is possible to create a better world for humanity, and to realize this sublime and beautiful goal, we need to take a look and revise how we view the world around us," he said, going on to mention the "sublime value of humanity" and a "walk on the sublime path."
The faces on the dais -- Greta Van Susteren, Eleanor Clift and Clarence Page among them -- met the president's statement with expressions of confusion that gradually turned into boredom as Ahmadinejad eschewed talk of uranium enrichment in favor of Hallmark. "Family is the center of love and beauty," he advised.
The man who recently hosted a convention for Holocaust deniers also treated listeners to his thoughts on the truth. "Lies have nothing to do with the divine spirit of mankind," he asserted.
Then the lies began.
Zremski inquired about the Amnesty International report finding flogging and imprisonment of journalists and at least 11 Iranian newspapers closed. "I think people who prepared the report are unaware of the situation in Iran," the president answered. "I think the people who give this information should seek what is the truth and, sort of, disseminate what's correct."
Zremski then raised the specific cases of two Kurdish journalists who have been sentenced to death for enmity toward God.
"This news is fundamentally wrong," Ahmadinejad replied. "What journalist has been sentenced to death?"
Zremski supplied the names of Kurdish journalists Adnan Hassanpour and Hiva Boutimar, sentenced July 16. "I don't know people by that name," the president retorted. "You have to, sort of, rectify the information channel."
A pattern had emerged. Zremski asked about the beating and torture of women's rights leaders. "Can you again tell me where you get this report from?" Ahmadinejad asked innocently.
Zremski asked about Ahmadinejad's assertion, at a news conference last month, that Iran is "prepared to fill the gap" of power in Iraq as U.S. influence declines. "Well, again, this, too, is one of those distortions by the press," he answered.
And those Iranian weapons showing up in Iraq? "No, this doesn't exist," he said.
Who knows? In the wild and wacky mind of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that just might be true.