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With Qaddafi Preoccupied, UN Rolls Its Eyes Toward Ahmadinejad

Those were the days: Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left) and then Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi embrace at the United Nations

Those were the days: Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left) and then Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi embrace at the United Nations

Every September, the UN General Assembly provides a platform for a colorful cast of characters to proclaim their sometimes weird world views.

The recent undisputed champion was Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, who brought two interpreters to the point of breakdown during a rambling, 90-minute speech in 2009. According to UN rules, speeches are limited to 15 minutes.

This year, Qaddafi seems to be having more pressing issues on his plate than a trip to New York. So all eyes now seem to have turned to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who is scheduled for the seventh consecutive year to deliver from the high tribune his vision for world peace and prosperity.

Starting in 2005, Ahmadinejad's visits to New York have been a bonanza for reporters, even though his schedule is usually kept under a shroud of secrecy until the last minute. By most accounts, Ahmadinejad enjoys the attention he receives in the United States: a flurry of carefully scheduled interviews with major media outlets, meetings with supporters -- and sometimes with not-so-friendly -- audiences in the city. (Ahmadinejad's controversial appearance at New York’s Columbia University in 2007 still has pundits scratching their heads. Was it a public relations fiasco or triumph?)

As host country, the United States is required to provide unimpeded passage to visiting dignitaries and their UN delegations. The Islamic republic does not maintain diplomatic relations with the United States. Visas for Ahmadinejad's delegation -- usually 40 to 50 people -- are normally processed through the U.S. Embassy in Bern, Switzerland.

Ahead of the general debate of the 66th General Assembly, which begins September 21, Ahmadinejad has already been working hard on image enhancement.

He was the subject of a flattering report by a major U.S. television network, which promoted the image of a hard-working, pious man laboring for the benefit of the underprivileged.

He also announced that two Americans jailed last month for eight years on espionage-related charges would be freed within "a couple of days." But the Iranian judiciary, with whom the president maintains a tense relationship, said the men may be freed not in two days but "in the near future."

Should the Americans leave Iran in time for Ahmadinejad's UN speech on September 22, their departure would represent a veritable red carpet of positive publicity for the president.

As are most foreign dignitaries visiting New York on UN business, Ahmadinejad is restricted in his movements to a 40-kilometer radius of the city. In the past, his requests to travel outside New York have been denied by the U.S. State Department. So was his request in 2009 to lay a wreath at Ground Zero.

Back in Iran, Ahmadinejad’s regular visits to New York have become a source of fascination for supporters and opponents alike. Ahmadinejad says his personal appearances add credibility to Tehran’s claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. His critics wonder why he has to pay tribute to an institution that has been consistently toughening economic sanctions against his country.

With such a divisive figure in their charge, the U.S. Secret Service doesn't take any chances. Ahmadinejad's security detail is doubled or tripled to 10 to 12 agents, in addition to to his own security. Less noticeable heads of state are usually assigned four Secret Service agents.

Separately, 30 New York City police officers are assigned to protect Ahmadinejad while he is in the city. The U.S. State Department pays the New York Police Department $10 million each year to cover security costs for the opening sessions of the UN General Assembly.

It's not disclosed how much is spent on Ahmadinejad specifically.

-- Nikola Krastev

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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