In the lull of August, major media outlets are turning a watchful eye on Iran. Jeffrey Goldberg’s lengthy piece offered a view from perches in Washington and Jerusalem. Meanwhile, The New Yorker dispatched its globetrotting reporter, Jon Lee Anderson, to Tehran, where he secured a very rare sit-down with the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Anderson’s report reveals a leadership stubbornly dismissive of external pressure, and outrageously blind to internal disputes.
It also shows a short, fiercely despised man trying hard to be press-savvy. As the interview begins, a press aide suggests Anderson avoid talk of war, whispering other topic ideas, like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill: Ahmadinejad apparently offered his help. But Anderson pushes at the pressing issue, questioning Ahmadinejad on his repeated calls for the destruction of Israel. “The Iranian nuclear-energy program and the issue of Palestine,” the president tells Anderson, “are two separate issues.”
While none of the president’s comments, which were peppered with slights against the “Zionist regime,” were revelatory or new, other figures close to him were more frank. A day before his interview, Anderson was beckoned by the president’s senior media adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr. Anderson describes their meeting:
I had it in my power, he said, to relay Iran’s “honest and good intentions to the United States.” When I raised the topic of Israel, he affected a mournful look. “Israel is unfortunately doomed,” he said. “I say this without any animosity but as a statement of fact. The rest of the world demands it, and the United States should separate itself, because it can gain nothing from this relationship except more trouble.” He smiled and added, “It is like a mother with a spoiled child, a child that is disobedient and which the mother does not discipline, but also a child which bothers the neighbors.”
Anderson’s access as a foreign journalist is an anomaly. Ahmadinejad’s team appeared aware of this—their nation’s opacity—and ready to exploit it. Javanfekr coyly noted the recent debacle with Gen. Stanley McChrystal. If the America doesn’t know what is happening within its own military, he suggested, how could it understand Iran?
One of the few Iranians Anderson was permitted to interview is Hossein Shariatmadari, an adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei and editor of the official clerical newspaper. Anderson questioned him about sanctions and a possible military conflict. Shariatmadari did not mince words:
In whatever combination they attack us, the Americans with Israel or without, we will hit Israel. They have nukes, yes, but their entire territory will be under the barrage of our missiles.
The cleric curtly dismissed the Green Movement, the country’s opposition that rose up last summer but has since met with well-documented suppression, as a “grand conspiracy” instigated by foreigners. Ahmadinejad also flippantly objected to suggestion of the presence of domestic turmoil, lauding the high voter turnout without the slightest irony—“Iran is the record-holder in democracy.”
A bulk of Anderson’s piece is devoted to his, rather futile, search for the opposition. He has clandestine meetings with members of a movement that one Iranian calls leaderless and “splintering.” In one rendezvous, a woman pines for a figure to push for the separation of “mosque and state.” She says, “We need a Spinoza in Iran.” That would be quite a burden. Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam.
But Iran’s lingering dissidents, Anderson reports, already share such a fate: “This was a very different Tehran from the one I had last visited in December, 2008, six months before the contested elections. Most of the politicians, journalists, and academics I saw then were no longer free to talk.”
Anderson mentions several prominent opposition member who have come forward with public apologies, without noting that these confessions were deemed false. (Yesterday, an Iranian woman sentenced to death offered a similar confession, identified by several observers as forced.)
Still, Anderson tries to end brightly, on a resistance movement that, driven by a unifying disgust of the president, lingers. Anderson depicts Ahmadinejad as surprisingly confident, more at ease than he has been in previous years. In recent months, Ahmadinejad has accelerated his sweeping, bizarre accusations. Speaking at a gathering of expatriates, the diminutive President ripped into the U.S. using a phrase awkward even in Persian: “The bogeyman snatched the boob.”
His remarks have been widely panned online in Iran, inspiring a satirical Facebook page with over 11,000 members. This response is not at all a sign that the massive resistance of a year ago is thriving. But maybe it’s a start.