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Iran's President Takes Message To U.S. Media

Mahmud Ahmadinejad addressing the General Assembly
Whether addressing the UN General Assembly, speaking to newspaper reporters in New York, or giving an interview for a U.S. television talk show, the message has been the same this week from Iran's president.

Mahmud Ahmadinejad is on a media tour in which he has been trying to reach out to ordinary Americans while, at the same time, defending Tehran's position in its disputes with the international community -- in particular, the United States and Israel.

Ahmadinejad has continued to express his controversial view that Israel has no future -- describing the Jewish state as "an airplane that has lost its engine." But having previously called for Israel to be "wiped off the map," that rhetoric appears to have been relatively toned down.

In an interview with the daily "Los Angeles Times" this week, Ahmadinejad said Israel should be transformed into a single state that allows all Palestinian refugees to return -- a move that would result in a Palestinian population that outnumbers the now dominant Jewish population.

Ahmadinejad also has repeatedly presented his country as a victim of an aggressive U.S. foreign policy -- claiming that Iran is now surrounded by U.S. forces and that world tensions are the result of "bully power" policies from Washington.

"The American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road," Ahmadinejad said in his speech to the General Assembly on September 23. "And its next rulers must limit their interference to their own borders. Today, the thought of hegemony quickly becomes a demerit."

Conflict With West

Ahmadinejad's media strategy has not won sympathy from thousands of protesters who gathered outside UN headquarters in New York on September 23 to demonstrate against Ahmadinejad as he gave his speech.

Among them was Francis Elaine, a survivor of the World War II Nazi death camps in Europe, who is angry because Ahmadinejad has previously denied the Holocaust.
Protesters outside UN headquarters

Elaine said that Ahmadinejad "said that the Holocaust never happened -- that it is invented. So where are my parents? Where is my whole family? I had five sisters and two brothers.... Six million Jews were killed and a million of them children. So he comes and he says that we invented the Holocaust."

Ahmadinejad also continues to deny allegations that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Instead, he insists that Iran has the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful civilian purposes.

Declaring the nuclear dispute "resolved," Ahmadinejad says Washington is putting undue pressure on the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in order to get the UN Security Council to impose fresh sanctions against Iran.

"The Iranian nation is for dialogue. But it has not accepted, and will not accept, illegal demands," he told the General Assembly. "The time has come for the IAEA to present a clear report to the international community on its monitoring of the disarmament of these nuclear powers and their nuclear activities."

Still, Ahmadinejad says his country is prepared to manage on its own if the Security Council does impose a new round of international sanctions against Iran.

'Flinty Populist'

In order to get his message out to the American public, as well as television viewers around the globe, Ahmadinejad also agreed to be interviewed in New York this week for CNN's popular talk show "Larry King Live."

As he had done for his speech to the General Assembly, Ahmadinejad dressed in his usual informal style for the Larry King interview -- wearing his plain, brown, zip-up jacket, a shirt with an unbuttoned collar, and no tie.

Media analysts say that image -- which he has been cultivating for years -- is aimed at making the Iranian president appear like a friendly ordinary person, a message that he has tried to reinforce with his comments in most interviews this week.

In fact, Ahmadinejad has said repeatedly during his media tour this week that he has no qualms with ordinary citizens of the United States or Israel.

But at the same time, he insists that Washington and what he called "murderous Zionists" are the real threat to world stability.

Writing in the "Los Angeles Times" on September 24, Jeffrey Fleishman describes Ahmadinejad as a "flinty populist" who has "transcended national and religious divides to become a folk hero across the Middle East."

Fleishman also says the rhetoric and defiance of Washington that Ahmadinejad has been expressing during his media tour in New York this week have enhanced his brand of populism in the Muslim world -- standing in vivid contrast to the detached styles of leaders like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

But Fleishman also contends that many Muslims around the world still wonder about Ahmadinejad's strategy in a region where political theater often masks quieter, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. He concludes that many Muslims find the Iranian president to be "as spooky as he is inspiring."

Ahmadinejad this week also has been downplaying a remark he made during a visit to Columbia University in New York last year that raised a chorus of laughter from the audience of students and professors -- and made him the target of ridicule in editorial cartoons across the world.

When asked by a student about human rights abuses against homosexuals in Iran, Ahmadinejad said last year that there are no homosexuals in Iran.

This year, he is saying in interviews that Iran has had laws against homosexuality since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He says that "the law must be enforced," implying that there is a small number of homosexuals in Iran who pose a threat to society.

RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev contributed to this report from New York

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

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