Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Iranian President Meets Press and Is Challenged

Michael Slackman, The New York Times:
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meant to use Tuesday to focus attention on his challenge to the president of the United States: a face-off in a live televised debate. But at a freewheeling two-hour news conference, Mr. Ahmadinejad also found himself challenged by local reporters who questioned the government’s economic program and its tolerance of a critical press.

The marathon question-and-answer session offered a window into one of the many contradictions of Iranian politics and governance: even as the government grows more authoritarian, it is openly criticized and challenged on its performance.

This was Mr. Ahmadinejad’s fourth news conference since taking office a year ago, and it came just three days before a deadline set by the United Nations Security Council for Iran to suspend its enrichment of uranium.

The president used the opportunity to continue Iran’s defiant posture toward the West — the United States and Britain in particular. He made it clear that Iran would not meet the deadline and that it would risk sanctions.

I announce that I am fully prepared to debate world and international issues with George Bush in a televised debate,” he said in his prepared remarks. Of course, only under the conditions that this debate is broadcast live and without censors, especially for the nation of U.S.”

Although the White House immediately dismissed the challenge as a diversion, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks appeared intended to further three objectives: to position Iran as taking the moral high ground by making the United States look like the party unwilling to talk; to drive a wedge between the United States and Britain on one side and France and Germany on the other; and to reiterate Iran’s determined refusal to give up its enrichment program.

“Peaceful nuclear energy is the right of the Iranian nation,” he said, repeating what has become a mantra of his administration. “The Iranian nation has chosen that based upon international regulations, it wants to use it, and no one can stop it.”

The news conference veered off into an unruly question-and-answer session, with reporters praising the president, questioning him and some jumping from their seats demanding that their questions be taken. The president politely admonished one reporter, saying he needed to behave better. READ MORE

One reporter said he had no question but wanted to recite poetry.

A reporter for a small newspaper called The Path of the People stood to ask a question and said: “I was hoping when you arrived I would share my pain with you. Now I have no pain in my heart, only happiness.”

But as the conference continued, Mr. Ahmadinejad found himself challenged on several issues of local importance, most focusing on the economy or on efforts to silence criticism of his government in the press.

One reporter said the government’s decision to spend billions of dollars to subsidize gasoline amounted to welfare for the rich, an assertion the president disputed. Another said that although the president claimed to support the press, his spokesman sought to have the judiciary investigate critical reporters.

“This contradicts what you said,” the reporter said into the microphone as Mr. Ahmadinejad listened. The same reporter said the president’s interior minister had denied permits to 14 groups wanting to hold demonstrations.

The president responded quickly, dismissing the complaints, and he tried to move on. But the challenges kept coming — not one after the other, but more consistently as the confidence in the room seemed to grow.

Food is very expensive to buy,”‘ said Nasser Alaghbandan, a reporter with the Tehran daily Jam-e-Jam, adding that whenever anyone asked the government spokesman about that issue he responded by citing government sticker prices, not actual prices.

At first Mr. Ahmadinejad responded with a quip, saying maybe the reporter should go shopping at the same store as his spokesman. He eventually said the rate of inflation was actually lower since he took office, but acknowledged that more needed to be done to bring down some specific costs, especially housing.

I am not happy it increased,” he said of the cost of housing.

As the news conference demonstrated, Iran’s leadership faces two primary challenges simultaneously, its nuclear program and its economy. On the nuclear front the president was resolute. On the economy, the issue that was the core of his campaign, he cited some accomplishments but asked for patience and more time.

“I did not expect in 10, 11, 12 months, I did not expect the economic programs of the government would be tangible everywhere,” he said, adding that they had been felt by some people.

The president, in his now trademark cream-colored suit and open collar with no tie, entered the packed conference hall from a side door. He climbed up onto a platform and briefly held his right hand over his head in a sort of hero’s greeting to the crowd.

He smiled through much of the conference, joked with questioners, and bobbed and weaved around many questions. He avoided answering directly when asked if Iran would be willing to take steps to prove that it was not after a nuclear weapons program, or if it would be willing to have face-to-face talks with the United States.

But Mr. Ahmadinejad did give some insight into sometimes ambiguous meaning of some of his statements. On Saturday the president said, “We are not a threat for any country, even the Zionist regime that is the enemy of the countries in the region.”

A reporter asked if that represented a change in position from his earlier call for Israel to be removed from the region. He replied by saying that swatting a baby’s hand to stop it from putting its fingers in a fire is not a threat.

“We are a peaceful country,” he said, “but recognize legitimate defense as our legal right.”

Iranian officials have also said they will be willing to hold talks on all issues regarding their nuclear program, so long as there are no preconditions. Asked if that meant that the government would be willing to consider, in the course of negotiations, suspending uranium enrichment, the president said: “We are ready to negotiate. They can put any question to us. Our response will be based on the inalienable rights of Iran.”

On the topic of debating his American counterpart, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s objective seemed as clear as when he sent Mr. Bush a letter last spring asking him to re-examine his foreign policies in the light of his Christian values.

While the White House dismissed the letter, and many of Iran’s own intellectuals scoffed at it, the Iranian president won points among his growing legion of followers in the region. Political analysts said he was hoping for the same response with the debate proposal.

“He is saying we want to talk, but Bush is refusing,” said Mustafa el-Labbad, an expert in Iranian affairs based in Cairo. “He wants to embarrass him by saying, ‘We are willing to negotiate, but he is refusing.’ ”
Its sad that it was the local reporters that asked the hard questions of Ahmadinejad and not the international journalists. The local reporters were risking their lives by asking hard questions. The international journalists only risk being asked to leave the country.