On Sunday afternoon, a reporter noted simply and incisively, "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must be feeling like he's in Heaven now. He loves New York, and he loves media attention."
For those of us who do not equate New York City with God's kingdom, that statement was a bit jarring. But as I watched Mahmoud Ahmadinejad skip and swagger his view through media interviews --- and, more importantly, as I saw the "Ahmadinejad" in the accounts of US journalists --- I saw the point.
The Iranian President is being portrayed as a villain, of course; to do otherwise would ruin the dramatic narrative of conflict. However, like the villain in any long-running pantomime, he is never actually vanquished. The media's blows are those of soft bats rather than hard questions, letting the audience boo and hiss but leaving Ahmadinejad to take his bows at the end of the performance.
And to return the next night.
The latest episode come on Sunday, as the President faced Christiane Amanpour, long-time specialist correspondent on Iranian affairs, on ABC News. To give Amanpour credit, the interview had far more depth than those enjoyed by Ahmadinejad in the US, and given to US media in Tehran, since the June 2009 election. Amanpour, as one might expect, opened with a lengthy exchange on the US hikers detained in Iran --- while Ahmadinejad did not get the grand ceremony he wanted for the release on bail of one of the three, Sarah Shourd flew back to America on Sunday --- and followed up with banter on Iran's nuclear programme and sanctions.
However, Amanpour then tried to challenge the President on the repression of the Iranian system. And, showing a depth of knowledge absent in other interviews, she raised the political tensions in Tehran, referring to former President Hashemi Rafsanjani's criticism of Ahmadinejad on the Iranian economy and sanction and to conservatives who are openly opposing the President. While her interviewee was far from rattled, he did have to evade the questions with some dubious assertions --- "In Iran, people are free to make statements, to say what they think. There are no restrictions on what people say."
So a victory for substance rather than pantomime, right? Not exactly.
The problem was that Amanpour's interview was quickly reduced, re-shaped, and, to be frank, mangled in press reports. The New York Times account fell for Ahmadinejad's diversionary tactic, when he was challenged about the US detainees who remain in Iranian jails or under house arrest. (Shourd's fiance Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal are entering their 15th month of detention without charge, and cases like that of Iranian-American economist Kian Tajbakhsh, sentenced to 12 years, have been forgotten.) Thus, the headline, "Ahmadinejad Wants Release of Iranians Held in US". Never mind that the President did not actually name any of those Iranians and had no answer to Amanpour's point --- as she did name one of the imprisoned Iranians --- that charges had been brought and trials had been held.
No, all that matters for the pantomime in the Times is the show battle of the US hikers v. Ahmadinejad's rebuttal. Then there are two paragraphs on the case of Sakineh Mohammad Ashtiani, sentenced to death with adultery, with Ahmadinejad getting his unexamined say: "[He] contended that the woman was never sentenced to stoning and that her case was 'news that was made up' as propaganda by American politicians and the media. He also wondered why the case of 'one lady in a village in Iran should suddenly become such a big issue for American officials'."
(Ahmadinejad's answer is, to be frank, either inaccurate or a lie. Ashtiani was condemned to die by stoning but, after international attention, the execution was suspended this summer. She still faces death after the completion of another process over her alleged complicity in the murder of her husband.)
And that's it for the Times. Nothing on the broader issues of politics, rights, and justice in Iran. Nothing on the persistent challenge of the opposition, as embodied in Mehdi Karroubi's latest letter, not only to Ahmadinejad but possibly to the Supreme Leader. Nothing on rights and justice beyond the hikers and the "stoning" setpiece. Nothing on the escalating political tension in Tehran.
The Associated Press also got an hour with Ahmadinejad on Sunday. To be fair, the article does have several paragraphs, about halfway in the report, on the internal situation. Included is this barbed reflection:
Government opponents "have their activities that are ongoing and they also express their views publicly. They have several parties, as well as several newspapers, and many newspapers and publications. And so there are really no restrictions of such nature," the president said.
He did not mention that many newspapers have been closed down and that prominent opposition figures were put in prison and then tried after tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets claiming that the election that put him back in power in 2009 was fraudulent and stolen.
The public appearances of his rivals Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi have been severely restricted and their offices recently were raided by police.
Ahmadinejad said Iran is more free than some other countries. "I believe that when we discuss the subject of freedoms and liberty it has to be done on a comparative basis and to keep in mind that democracy at the end of the day means the rule of the majority, so the minority cannot rule."
He added: "In Iran I think nobody loses their job because of making a statement that reflects their opinion. ... From this point of view, conditions in Iran are far better than in many other places in the world."
The impact is somewhat diluted, however, by an AP headline which plays into the President's PR, "Ahmadinejad Says Future is Iran's" and its shift, after those paragraphs on internal matters, back to the priority of Ahmadinejad's Iran v. The World, primarily over the nuclear issue.
And so the play and the game continues, as the President moves to the US Public Broadcasting Service tonight with Charlie Rose and CNN on Wednesday with Larry King.
The central arena, away from this New York sideshow, is in Tehran, and I'm not sure how many of Ahmadinejad's interviewers will know that he is playing for supremacy back home over conservative challengers. The Iranian media who back him are proclaiming that 16 US news organisations are clamouring for his words. Press TV's handling of the AP interview is telling: not a word about the passage on Iran's political and legal matters as it declares, "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says his country will never seek a nuclear bomb, stressing that Iran has always called for a world free of nuclear weapons."
That's the real PR contest, far beyond the Punch-and-Judy prelude to Ahmadinejad's address to the UN General Assembly on Thursday.