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The Ahmadinejad Visit

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Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007; 1:00 PM

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed Tuesday not to give in to pressure by "arrogant powers" trying to force him to abandon his nation's uranium-enrichment program and unilaterally declared that as far as he is concerned, "the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed."

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Washington Post staff writer Robin Wright spent three days tracking Ahmadinejad's American adventure -- at Columbia University, at the U.N., at a press conference and at meetings with American academics and religious leaders. She was online Wednesday, Sept. 26, at 1 p.m. ET to talk about what he did and did not achieve in New York.

A transcript follows.

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Robin Wright: Hi guys. I've just come from covering the third day of President Ahmadinejad's trip to NY. I look forward to your questions.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: There is a lot of speculation about the administration's planning on Iran, but precious little solid reporting on the state of debate within the administration. Is there anything new, or is it still just an unknown balance between the Cheneyites, on the one side, and Rice and Gates on the other?

Also, how would congressional Republicans respond if Bush were to launch an unauthorized attack on Iran? Is there any reason to think they would do anything other than bark a little and bite not at all?

Robin Wright: Yours is the question of the hour. I wish I knew more about the internal debate.

My sense is that the majority of the Bush administration's foreign policy team -- at the top levels -- really want to give diplomacy a chance. Many of them understand at least some of the problems that of a confrontation with Iran. But there's also a growing frustration -- for example, that the three rounds of talks between US and Iranian officials in Baghdad since this spring have not gone anywhere. They claim that the pace of arms to militants in Iraq has actually increased since then.

There is, however, clearly a drumbeat emerging from many of the same quarters that argued that the only means of getting Saddam Hussein to cooperate.

So there's a lot of tension in the air.

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Poplar Bluff, Mo.: Robin, thanks for taking questions. I heard someone talking on one of the news networks about Israel having a three-month window if they are to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. My question: Is there a three-month window and what is the significance of that time span?

Robin Wright: I have not heard of any three-month window nor am I familiar with what you're referring to. I think there is an enormous amount of speculation out there -- and not a lot of verifiable facts.

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Reading, Pa.: Robin:

Regarding the U.N. speech given by the Iranian President: I believe at one point the translator said only that Mr. Ahmadinejad was reciting verses from the Koran, has anyone translated what these verses were and what their significance might be?

Robin Wright: Ahmadinejad usually invokes references to the 12th imam, the mahdi, at the beginning of every speech and appearance. At the UN yesterday, he said, "Oh God, hasten the arrival of the Imam al Madhi and grant him good health and victory and make us his followers and those who attest to his rightfulness."

The Iranian president believes that the Mahdi, who disappeared in the ninth century, will some day reemerge. Interestingly enough, he often talks -- as he did this morning with American and Canadian religious leaders -- about how Jesus will also reemerge and at the same time as the Mahdi.

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Westwood, Mass.: Did you get an invite with the likes of Brian Williams to the private dinner with A'jad last night or are you persona non grata with the Iranian regime? Also, why do we pay so much attention to him when the real power in Iran is with the the Supreme Leader, Khamenei (military, intel, security, judiciary, press, etc.)? Shouldn't any articles about him provide that context for readers who may not understand the Iranian system?

Robin Wright: Yes, I went to the dinner last night -- about 3 dozen US academics and about 20 media -- with Ahmadinejad.

You're absolutely correct that the real power in Iran has always been in the hands of the Supreme Leader -- first Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader, and today with Ayatollah Khamenei (yes, very confusingly similar names).

You make an interesting point about how the West gives so much attention to Ahmadinejad -- sometimes with more fuss than he gets at home. But his comments have also been quite contentious and differ significantly from the more conciliatory tone take by his predecessor President Khatami.

The invitation to the dinner did not reflect anything about being in or out of favor with the regime. People like Gary Sick -- former Carter administration official during the 1979-81 US embassy takeover -- was also there. He has often asked to go to Iran but always been refused.

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Charleston, S.C.: Why only focus on Iran while we intentionally look the other way regarding Israel, which already has in excess of 200 nuclear bombs in its arsenal? If we truly believe in nuclear disarmament, we should campaign for the entire Middle East to be nuclear-free region. This approach will prove to the citizens of the region that U.S policy is even handed, NOT ONE-SIDED.

Robin Wright: Your question was reflected in the comments of the Iranian president at least twice during his visit here.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Thanks for taking questions. I am no fan of the Iranian president, but I don't believe Columbia was out of line in inviting him to speak. That said, I found Bollinger's condemnation of him at the forum way too rude. Regardless of what you think of Ahmadinejad and his ridiculous statements, he was an invited guest. At least Bollinger could have found a less abrasive way of expressing his views. I know Iran isn't an Arab country, but don't they ascribe to the same cultural views of hospitality? Bollinger made a media martyr of Ahmadinejad by treating him so harshly.

Robin Wright: It will be fascinating -- and telling - to watch the fallout of Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia at home. I've been talking to both Iranians and Iran experts in the US about it. There are some who contend that even Iranians who don't like their president will be offended by what they see as rudeness and lack of hospitality. There are others who contend that his treatment at Columbia will undermine his standing in Iran --and show how much damage he does to Iran. It's one of the questions I am trying to answer today for a final story on his 3 day visit to the US. We may not know the answer for some time, however.

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Stamford, Conn.: I read in this morning's Post editorial "The Iran Impasse" that Iran is engaged in a "race for a bomb." Is that true?

washingtonpost.com: Editorial: The Iran Impasse

Robin Wright: Many of you have asked about Iran's nuclear program. I wish I knew more first hand. I share the concern of many that the US could make the same mistake we make in Iraq. I try to use the terms "alleged" or "suspected" nuclear program and I usually also try to point out that Iran is not in violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty in enriching uranium for a peaceful nuclear program. The problem of course is that Iran had a secret enrichment program for 18 years and that has undermined any trust among the international community.

I often ask senior officials if they have seen any tangible, concrete, reliable intelligence that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program since 2002 when Iran admitted it had been lying. I have yet to get a fully satisfactory answer. At the same time, there are a lot of reasons - given Iran's neighborhood surrounded by nuclear powers, its history of being attacked or occupied by neighbors from the Soviet Union to Iraq - that Iran might want the technological capability to develop a bomb.

But I'm the first to admit, I don't know the answer and wish I had more concrete information.

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Columbus, Ohio: During his tour, and watching him at NPC, the U.N., Columbia and Charlie Rose show, I increasingly felt that the media is blindly following the U.S. government positions.

When journalists were challenged by President Ahmadinejad, on the accuracy of their claims about the nuclear issue, Holocaust-denial, Journalist Imprisonment in Iran, Women's Rights issues in Iran and alike, they were speechless.

It left me the impression, the journalists' only source has been the U.S. government reports. They haven't been doing their homework. They haven't event been thinking for themselves.

Exactly when did investigative and independent journalism die? May I lay a wreath?

Robin Wright: There is enormous variety in the media when it comes to first hand knowledge of the Middle East, notably a place like Iran that is off limits to many journalists. I've been going there since 1973, and along the way covered the revolution, hostage drama, Iran-Iraq war from the warfront, the reform movement and the rise of Ahmadinejad. You might be surprised at how many US journalists have gone to Iran over the past 28 years, since the shah's ouster, and have deep interest in this pivotal geostrategic country. A lot of us try very had to understand the diverse dynamics. At the same time, we also watch as thoughtful scholars we know - such as Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh - are arrested and held in prison for months without access to lawyers or due process.

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Arlington, Va.: Ms. Wright, when you don't know the answer to a question, just say I don't know and we will understand.

When you were asked what verse of the Qur'an Ahmadinejad recited, you said he invoked a call for the Messiah. That is not a verse from the Qur'an, that is a prayer. Then you said "Interestingly enough, he often talks -- as he did this morning with American and Canadian religious leaders -- about how Jesus will also reemerge and at the same time as the Mahdi."

That is a big DUH! In the religion of Islam, Imam Mahdi will appear with the Prophet Jesus (peace be upon them both) praying with him. That is not "interestingly enough", that is actually the religion of Islam, Jesus is one of our Prophets.

Robin Wright: Yes, but a lot of Americans don't know that. I'm delighted you do. I'm often surprised by how many Americans do not understand the Muslims worship the same monotheistic God and that "allah" is only the Arabic word for the same god. I often get Christmas cards from Muslim friends quoting verses about the birth of Jesus -- from the Koran.

Tragically, too many Americans don't understand the the similarities among the three Abrahamic faiths.

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Baltimore, Md.: While the Iranian president (and I won't try to spell the name) is in America talking about giving succor to Holocaust deniers, state TV in his country has been airing an Iranian-produced dramatic mini-series about the plight of European Jews in WWII and how some of them found asylum in Iran. (The series was profiled in the N.Y. Times.) I found that a pretty interesting message for the Iranian media to be sending the people at this time.

Have you heard of this series? Any comment?

Robin Wright: Yes, I've heard of the program. It's been profiled in the Wall Street Journal and by the Associated Press (which the Post ran on its world news pages).

It's quite striking, given the statements by the regime on Israel. But Iran is home to the second largest Jewish community in the Middle East, after Israel. I've been to synagogues, Jewish schools, a kosher butcher, the Jewish hospital (as well as Christian schools, weddings, services etc).

Iran's Jewish community is only a fraction of what it once was but it is still vibrant and many want to stay; they think of themselves as Persians. Some government officials will make the point that their objection is not to Judaism or Jews but to Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

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Winnipeg, Canada: It seems to me that the major effect the Iranian president created during his visit was probably unintentional: he demonstrated remarkable similarities to President Bush: a folksy charm, a reluctance to face unpleasant truths, a fundamentalist approach to religion and a willingness to make scurrilous statements that do not stand up to reality: no homosexuals in Iran vs we're kicking a_ _ in Iraq.

Could it be that the reason for much of the outcry about the Columbia speech from conservative commentators came out of a fear that people would see a faint mirror image of President Bush in the Iranian president?

Robin Wright: I wouldn't touch that with a 10-foot pole. But I will say that I am constantly struck on every trip to Iran about the similarities between Americans and Iranians -- their curiosity, hospitality, generosity, often their naivete. And it makes me all the sadder that the tensions have gone on between governments for so long -- longer than the political tensions lasted between the US and Vietnam after a war in which 57,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died.

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Alexandria, Va.: In your article "U.S. v. Iran: Cold War, Too" in late July you made the following statement following an analysis of Iran's increased influence in the Middle East:

"And that's all before the question of Iran's nuclear intentions -- whether it is using a legal and peaceful nuclear-energy program as cover to develop the world's deadliest weapon -- is factored in."

Are Iran's intentions no longer in question? This morning Washington Post editorial states that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. Has there been some development I'm unaware of?

Robin Wright: You're right. There are still lots of unanswered questions about Iran's nuclear intentions, which I acknowledged in the July piece. I wish we all knew more.

Feel free to query the editorial page. As you know, there is a firewall between the editorial and news pages of many papers and I have no idea what discussions or reporting goes into the pieces the editorial writers produce.

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Washington, D.C.: Bollinger got it wrong. The man that he introduced on Monday is not a "dictator." His position is similar to the position of presidents of Iraq and Israel. The real power in Iran belongs to others, mostly the clerics.

Robin Wright: Iran's president is one of the autocrats, but only one of several in Iran.

But Iran's election is no where near as open or democratic as in either Iraq or Israel. A panel of Islamic scholars approved by the Supreme Leader vets all candidates for all elected office and huge numbers -- these days, mainly reformers -- are always disqualified. There is no independent group that monitors or rates democracy anywhere in the world that gives Iran high marks on democracy.

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Northern Virginia: Mr. Ahmadinejad's ignorance might have been in full display in the US, but that hasn't stopped him from making new friends. This week he travels to Bolivia to establish diplomatic relations with that country, which has no cultural, commercial, nor historical ties, with Iran. The only common denominator between both leaders is their rabid hatred towards the U.S.

Robin Wright: On a previous trip to the UN, Ahmadinejad also went to Venezuela and won endorsement from more than 100 developing countries for some of his positions. Iran has allies and, more tellingly, a lot of oil-trading partners. China's growing trade with Iran is increasingly complicating the US and Europe plan to get a tough 3rd resolution imposing new sanctions against Iran for its failure to comply with a UN mandate to suspend uranium enrichment.

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Garden Grove, Calif.: Now that we know the Iranian president has committed his country to the uncontrolled and illegal nuclear project, what will the U.S. and the rest of the Western nations do? Will there be a stiffer sanction imposed on Iran? What if Iran just wants to use this issue as a leverage to get it out of the international embargo and sanctions?

Robin Wright: The Bush administration is trying to win approval from the other 4 veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council for a new resolution. Sec of State Condoleezza Rice meets Friday with her counterparts here in NY to discuss it. The Russians don't want any action before President Putin makes his first visit to Iran on Oct. 16. But neither Russia or China supports the measures the US wants, so what we may see play out is a third weak resolution later this year -- maybe November -- and then a new separate track of sanctions against Iran by the US and Europe that is much tougher.

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K Street: Thanks for taking my question. In the editorial today, one can read that "debates" such as the one at Columbia University can only make Ahmadinejad more popular in the Middle East. Is that so? Would you say Ahmadinejad is indeed popular and well-liked, or at least respected/admired in his country and across the region?

Robin Wright: Ahmadinejad is one of the most controversial figures in the region. Remember, he won the presidency in 2005 in large part as a rejection by voters of the other main candidate, former President Rafsanjani, who was seen as corrupt and representative of a bygone era. Ahmadinejad was little known politically at the time as he had only been major of Tehran for 2 years, when he was seen by many in the electorate as a clean politician concerned with the little guy. It's interesting to see what trouble he has had actually improving the lot of Iran's lower classes. Because of Iran's own serious energy problems - it has to import 40% of its own oil since it doesn't have the refineries necessary for its own purposes -- the government had to impose rationing. I have one friend who can only buy enough gas to drive her child to and from school and get groceries on her way home.

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Juneau, Alaska: Hi Robin -- On the gays in Iran issue...the translation I heard was that there are not gays in Iran like in the USA. I didn't hear that there are no gays in Iran only that it wasn't like the USA. Not to be an apologist, but in retrospect, what was really said? Thanks

Robin Wright: He made the comment twice. Yesterday at a press conference here at the UN he was asked by an Iranian reporter again and she even added that she knew several Iranian gays herself. Ahmadinejad replied, "Seriously?" and then said he knew of none. He later asked for their addresses -- in front of hundreds of reporters -- so the government could be "aware of what's going on."

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San Diego, Calif.: People in Iran in general still have very positive attitudes towards American people. In fact, it's basically not significantly different than European peoples' attitudes towards us. So, from people to people perspective, we can still have great relationship with Iran today. So, why is it that government to government (Iran vs. U.S.), it looks blick?

Robin Wright: Yes, you're correct. The bonds between Americans and Iranians have survived the revolution and extraordinary crises. Iranians distinguish between Americans and the American govt, whoever is in power. But Iranians know far more about us and still travel back and forth far more than Americans do, a situation that has been even more difficult since 9/11.

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West Bend, N.C.: It is custom for speakers to receive an Honorarium for speaking at university events.

Have any reporters asked Columbia University if they paid the President of Iran and if so how much?

Robin Wright: I don't know. Perhaps Khatami spoke there after he left office. Columbia has a huge leadership lecture series. Little noticed on the same day that Ahmadinejad spoke, so did the presidents of Chile and Turkmenistan and many more now at the UN were expected to speak on campus too.

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Dranesville, Va.: To what extent do you think Ahmadenijad's infamous quotes have been translated incorrectly or out of context? For example, his "wipe Israel off the map" might have simply meant that Israel as a state should not exist geopolitically (as opposed to nuking it off the map...doing so would presumably kill a lot of Palestinians, too). Also, I wonder why his point that Palestinians should not have to give up their land for atrocities committed by Germans/Europeans is so ignored. It seems a fairly reasonable argument to suggest that Germany give up some of its land for Jews, instead of Palestinians.

Robin Wright: A lot of you have asked about Ahmadinejad's positions on the Holocaust and Israel's right to exist -- the issues that make him most controversial. There are lots of academic debates about the translations and context of his remarks. Juan Cole has particularly strong views that are posted on his Web site. AIPAC has its views too. I'm only a reporter.

ON Israel, he has said in NY this week that he wants all "Palestinians" to have a referendum on their future to decide what becomes of what he calls the "Zionist entity." He refuses to say the word "Israel." But "Palestinians" in his view includes Jews, Muslims and Christians. My sense is that he is counting on demographics to determine the "Palestinians" future. There is clearly no real room for political compromise in his view on Israel. But that also doesn't mean that Iran intends to bomb Israel into obliterations -- if largely for the reason that Iran knows what the world would do in response.

Thanks for all your questions. I have to go write for the paper now!

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Robin Wright: Thanks for all your excellent questions. I enjoyed the back-and-forth. I have to go write for the paper now. But this subject will remain a hot one so hopefully we can address it again soon.

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