At a small group breakfast meeting that we attended in New York, President Ahmadinejad played down his Holocaust denial, emphasizing only his belief that Palestinians had been made to suffer as a result of Jewish suffering during World War II. “A blacksmith committed a sin, and they beheaded another blacksmith to make up for it,” he said in colloquial phrasing typical of his rhetoric. A short man dressed in the white windbreaker he wears everywhere, Ahmadinejad contrasted sharply with the black-robed and turbaned ayatollahs with whom he has an uneasy alliance. He greeted us with a polite salute and then proceeded to talk for two hours, allowing us to ask whatever questions we wanted.
Ahmadinejad skirted critical questions, parrying queries on freedom of expression in Iran, for instance, with the assertion that “no one in the United States questions democracy, but in Iran we can question the principles of Islamic government.” The exchange did not produce evidence of common ground on which to resolve the United States’ disputes with Iran, but Ahmadinejad did profess to be in favor of dialogue, promising to provide forums for exchanges in technical areas such as aerospace and adding tongue in cheek that “Americans can go to Iran without being fingerprinted and treated disrespectfully.” (A visa for President Ahmadinejad himself had been opposed by the State Department, and a number of Iranian journalists were denied visas to accompany his visit to the United Nations.)
The denunciatory rhetoric that President Ahmadinejad had demonstrated in his UN speech the day before our breakfast meeting was significantly muted when we met in the absence of a large diplomatic audience to witness his performance. He emphasized an almost mystical side to the nationalist populism he projects. “Iranians have a love affair with Iran,” he said at one point, recalling his service in the Revolutionary Guard during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. “Even Armenians and Jews joined in the fight.” At another point he said, “Ideals are like mountain peaks for a mountaineer. As you climb you must look at the peak but also at your feet. We must move up towards the ideal. Otherwise life is boring.” Again, there was little in the exchange to provide a basis for bilateral understandings, but the closed-door meeting provided insight into a quieter side of the Iranian president’s personality and also, perhaps, into an aspect of his domestic appeal in Iran. “From the taxi driver to the baker, nobody is worried what will happen if the U.S. attacks… Iranians have inner strength.”