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Reporter's Notebook: Ahmadinejad’s Last Bittersweet Trip To New York

New York police officers look at a man dressed as President Mahmud Ahmadinejad during a protest against the Iranian leader outside the Warwick Hotel in New York.
New York -- Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is likely to have mixed emotions about his last official visit to New York to appear at the United Nations General Assembly. Ahmadinejad’s two-term presidency ends in 2013 and, according to the Iranian Constitution, he cannot seek a third consecutive term.

The 55-year-old Ahmadinejad was interviewed by a number of major news outlets, including CNN and “The Washington Post,” which gave him the attention he so much enjoys.

And he didn’t deliver his speech to a “bunch of empty seats,” as some Iranians had predicted on social-media sites, anticipating another provocative speech that would lead to a mass exit by Western delegates.

He kept his 40-minute speech relatively mild, refraining from his usual inflammatory comments, while making references to Persian poetry and the return of the Hidden Imam. The Iranian president also managed to bring a large delegation of some 140 close aides and others with him to New York, despite criticism at home.

"My visits to New York have all been good,” Ahmadinejad said during a September 26 press conference at the hotel Warwick in Midtown Manhattan, where he has been staying.

But in truth, this visit was not as “good” as the past seven ones. While he was giving his speech at the UN, his press adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr was sent to prison in Tehran to serve the jail term he had been sentenced to last November after being convicted of “publishing materials contrary to Islamic norms” in a case that was, by many accounts, politically motivated.

When asked about the detention at a press conference where RFE/RL reporters were not welcome, a visibly shaken Ahmadinejad, according to journalists present, claimed that he was still processing the situation.

“I received the news very recently, so I must be able to digest it and analyze it and then I'll be able to express an opinion about it," he said. "Of course, I do hope that no one anywhere in the world would be arrested or incarcerated, particularly from the side of the media.”

Political Infighting

The arrest of his aide was yet another blow to the embattled president, whose political star has faded following a power struggle with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his powerful allies.

It was also another sign of the ongoing political infighting in the Islamic establishment, where the circle of insiders has been shrinking rapidly.

An incident involving Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, who was reportedly confronted and harassed by a small group of anti-Ahmadinejad protesters near the United Nations, is also likely to leave a bitter memory for the president.

Videos appear to show protesters verbally attacking Mehmanparast and calling him a “terrorist.”

One of the protesters, who claimed he had traveled from Los Angeles to take part in the demonstration against Ahmadinejad, told RFE/RL that Mehmanparast deserved to be beaten up. “They have killed so many people,” he said.

His attitude stood in stark contrast to that of a number of members of Iran’s opposition Green Movement, whose challenge to Ahmadinejad’s reelection in 2009 was violently suppressed.

One opposition member in Tehran told RFE/RL in an e-mail that he didn’t support violence in any form. “I oppose any kind of violence, whether it be against Ahmadinejad and his clique, or any other human being,” he said.

Other opposition members, who have been forced to leave Iran since the protests, used social media to condemn the attack on Mehmanparast.

“We oppose the Islamic establishment because of the violence they use against their opponents," one wrote. "If members of the opposition resort to violence, then how do they differ from the Iranian authorities?”

The man condoning Mehmanparast’s harassment was among a group of protesters who were wearing T-shirts from “Ma Hastim” (meaning “We are”) -- a group they say is associated with one of the exiled Iranian television networks, now based in Los Angeles.

Demonstrators in New York hold up a sign criticizing the Israeli, U.S., and Iranian leaders.
Demonstrators in New York hold up a sign criticizing the Israeli, U.S., and Iranian leaders.
They were protesting in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on 47th Street, just a few meters away from members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO or MEK) who had managed to gather several hundred protesters – Iranians and non-Iranians alike -- and high-profile speakers, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and ex-U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton.

The rally called for Ahmadinejad’s expulsion and the safety and security of MKO members in Camp Liberty in Iraq, where they are currently residing after being transferred from Camp Ashraf, their base for some two decades.

A man who was wearing an MKO yellow vest and holding an MKO flag indicated that he was there to celebrate the recent controversial decision by the United States to remove the group from its list of terrorist organizations.

“I am not an MEK member; I am a supporter," said the man, who identified himself only as “Sam.” "I support any group that is after the overthrow of the Islamic republic,” he added. “Ahmadinejad should not be allowed to speak at the UN.”

Several African-Americans wearing MKO vests were standing a few steps away. One of them, a young man who appeared to be in his 20s, was the only one who agreed to be interviewed.

“I came here to support Iran,” he said, adding that “the killings and wickedness has to stop.” When pressed about his knowledge of Iran, he said that he learned about the country from the posters he saw at the protest and from reading “Metro” newspaper, a free daily.

He said he and others had been brought in by bus from Staten Island, and that he had been contacted and taken to the protest through his pastor.

Performance Report

A day earlier, at a protest in front of Ahmadinejad’s hotel, a young Iranian student from the antiwar and antisanctions group, “Havaar,” said one of the reasons they had decided not to protest in front of the UN was because they wanted to stay away from the MKO protest.

The group is despised by many Iranians because of its cooperation with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the bloody Iran-Iraq War.

The protester, who identified himself as Soheil, said he had left Iran two years ago and is now a student at Columbia University. He said he was protesting against repression in Iran and Western sanctions, which he said are hurting the Iranian people and raising the threat of war.

“We don’t care about the Iranian people,” read one poster, which featured pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ahmadinejad.

If Ahmadinejad had looked out of the window, he might have been able to see other posters the demonstrators created -- large pictures and information concerning political prisoners jailed in Iran during the brutal 2009 crackdown that followed his reelection.

“I don’t have anything to say to Ahmadinejad," Soheil said as he distributed leaflets about the protest to passersby. "He is a liar who came to power over what we believe was massive election fraud. For me, the main issue is the Islamic republic and the repression it is imposing on Iranians.”

Ahmadinejad now returns to Tehran and to an increasingly uncertain political future. When asked here by a reporter about his achievements as president, Ahmadinejad said that he needed “many hours” to give a performance report.

"...Our analysis is that during this time period, our perception is that the rate of progress of Iran has multiplied," he said. "And [we have had considerable progress and achievements] in scientific well as [in] the economy, industry, and other sectors."

Soheil said he begged to differ. Ahmadinejad’s presidency, he said, had brought “some of the worst years” his country has ever seen.

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