How to Debate Ahmadinejad
Five tips for winning an argument with the Iranian president.
Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly challenged U.S. President Barack Obama to a face-to-face televised debate on solving the world’s problems. For understandable reasons, the White House quickly dismissed the invitation, just as President George W. Bush did with a similar offer in 2006. But Ahmadinejad’s gambit is a tantalizing opportunity to imagine how Obama’s rhetorical abilities might stand up in a direct competition with his Iranian counterpart.
Despite the popular perception in the United States that the Iranian president is an irrational and unstable character, the reality is that Ahmadinejad is a shrewd politician with a skillful command of debating tactics. His preferred method of debate is to masterfully spin out rhetorical questions, combative statements, ad hominem arguments, and sarcastic remarks in order to muddle the discussion to an extent that the original topic of conversation becomes indistinct to both his rivals and audience.
As a master of the fine art of spin, he can appeal to groups of diverse backgrounds by speaking a language to which they can relate. In the 2005 presidential debates, he successfully defeated the powerful conservative politician Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani by portraying himself as a liberal-minded politician and, hence, a supporter of middle-class segments of Iranian society. During the televised presidential debates in 2009, he cleverly outmaneuvered his rivals by questioning their motives, personal integrity, and loyalty to the regime. In one particular debate, he was so effective at portraying the reformist Mehdi Karroubi as a corrupt insider who had taken campaign donations from convicted criminals that some of Karroubi’s supporters turned against their candidate.
So, in an imaginary debate, how could Obama defeat Ahmadinejad? What follows are a few suggested tactics based on observing his past performances. They do not guarantee a victory, but they could surely raise serious problems for a controversial leader who has built his popular appeal largely on a series of rhetorical postures.
1. Force him to focus on what he wants to avoid.
Ahmadinejad is famous for his use of red herrings. When it comes to avoiding a problematic topic or evading a question, he peppers his opponents with random questions in order to change the subject or simply use up their time and force them move on to a new subject. In a May interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Ahmadinejad was asked about the possibility that Osama bin Laden was residing in Iran and whether he would expel the al Qaeda leader if he were found there.
"If you did know that Osama bin Laden was in Tehran, would you show him hospitality? Would you expel him? Would you arrest him?" Stephanopoulos asked after several attempts at a straight answer. "I heard that Osama bin Laden is in Washington, D.C.," Ahmadinejad quickly responded. Several minutes of back and forth followed in which the Iranian president continued to avoid the question by talking about bin Laden’s alleged close relations with Bush. When an exasperated Stephanopoulos finally asked point blank if Ahmadinejad would deny that bin Laden was in Iran, Ahmadinejad responded, "Rest assured that he’s in Washington. I think there’s a high chance he’s there." That was the end of the interview.
One way of beating Ahmadinejad at this rhetorical game is to throw at him a question or a statement that shifts back to the topic of debate. This is what Mohsen Rezaee, the former Revolutionary Guard commander and conservative candidate, did during the televised presidential debates for the June 2009 election. When Ahmadinejad tried to divert attention from his administration’s mishandling of the Iranian economy by posing numerous questions about his opponent’s experience in government, Rezaee skillfully reverted back to the economy by urging viewers to read his economic plans online. When Ahmadinejad tried to ask more questions to disrupt the flow of Rezaei’s economic argument, the candidate fought back by posing new questions on the president’s poor economic record.
In that particular debate, watched by millions of Iranians, Ahmadinejad seemed frustrated. Unable to successfully perform his usual tactics of diversion, he kept shifting to subtle attacks on his opponent’s character and personal integrity. Although of course he eventually won the elections under controversial circumstances, many believe he lost the debate with Rezaee by throwing cheap shots and making insignificant arguments that only revealed his arrogance, especially on economic issues.
2. Be specific.
Ahmadinejad’s debating style consists of a set of statements that are more like slogans than actual arguments. Like all populists, he usually shies away from specifics, and when he does refer to actual facts, he usually does it to expand on sweeping assertions about the economy or foreign affairs. The fact that Ahmadinejad has been able to avoid discussing nearly any issue in any specificity for so long shows just how skillful a debater he can be.
In a September 2006 interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, a question was raised about Iran’s large missile arsenal. Ahmadinejad’s answer was a generic claim about Iran’s desire for justice and peace and how in fact it is the United States that poses the greatest threat to world security because of its conventional and nuclear weapons. He then turned to some general remarks about world history before Williams had a chance to follow up. In the same interview, Williams inquired about Ahmadinejad’s rarely seen wife, to which the president replied, "She is an Iranian woman. And just as I am an Iranian too."
By being specific on certain topics — say, the exact purpose of secret nuclear facility near the city of Qom, or the names of those in the intelligence complex who unleashed violence against the protesters after the disputed 2009 election — a skillful opponent can slow down or disrupt the flow of Ahmadinejad’s generalities. Again, Rezaee is an instructive example. During his debate with Ahmadinejad, he cited the government’s own statistics on inflation to discredit the president’s claims about the improving economy. Ahmadinejad could only stare on dumbfounded as his argument was picked apart.
This won’t stop him from moving on to discuss other unrelated subjects, but it can undermine some of his sound bites and cliché statements that are meant to make the discussion as opaque as possible.
3. Test his knowledge.
Despite his claima of expertise, Ahmadinejad is actually clueless on a wide variety of topics, including his country’s political history. This is what Joe Klein of Time magazine discovered during a 2009 interview. After inquiring about Rafsanjani’s famous Quds Day speech in 2001, in which the conservative cleric talked about the need for an "Islamic bomb," Ahmadinejad bluntly denied such a speech had actually taken place. Unfortunately, for the president, Klein had actually been present when Rafsanjani had made the remarks. The denial of these events reeks of dishonesty of the highest sort. But maybe it shows that Ahmadinejad is actually not that well informed about subjects in which he claims expertise.
Consider, for instance, the topic on which the presiden
t has generated the most international controversy, the Holocaust. A number of American and European reporters have pressed Ahmadinejad on this topic, but no one has to this day asked him what he exactly knows about the Holocaust. What does he know about Auschwitz? What are his thoughts about the Iranian diplomat in Paris who saved many Jews from persecution by issuing them Iranian passports to flee Europe? Rather than debating Ahmadinejad’s assertions on this subject, his interlocutors might find it more effective to simply expose how little he knows about it. Such a tactic would have been welcome last weekend when Ahmadinejad told reporters that he doubted 3,000 people were actually killed in the 9/11 attacks and asserted that "Zionists" had been warned in advance.
4. Don’t let him under your skin.
Ever since John F. Kennedy wiped the floor with a sweaty, combative Richard Nixon in 1960, smart politicians have understood that in televised debates, what you say is less important than how you say it. Ahmadinejad is no exception. His humble looks, grey jacket, and unkempt beard might not win him points in a fashion show, but his tough-talking style has won him supporters from the impoverished southern neighborhoods of Tehran to the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia, where he enjoys high popularity for his anti-Western views. In the 2009 presidential debates, Ahmadinejad prevailed over one rival, Mehdi Karroubi, by using simple and easy-to-understand arguments about Iran’s nuclear policy and relations with Arab states and, more importantly, appearing combative against his opponent’s alleged corrupt activities. The performance was superb because he managed to convince many Iranians that he is an anti-elite politician on a crusade against governmental corruption, personified by Karroubi.
All in all, effectively debating Ahmadinejad would require the ability to convey complex ideas in a way that a broad audience could understand. More importantly, it would be wise to avoid big words or disorganized ideas and sentences. This is the mistake that Mir Hussein Mousavi made during his debate with Ahmadinejad. When replying to the president’s accusation that his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, was not qualified to be an assistant professor, Mousavi let his emotions got the better of him, leading him to throw out an array of difficult-to-follow ideas and arguments that appeared muddled with anger, ultimately making him look awkward and edgy. Ahmadinejad won huge points because of his rival’s inability to coherently fight back. A shrewder opponent would have anticipated these accusations and calmly refuted them without losing emotional control.
5. Have fun!
Ahmadinejad is notorious for making sarcastic remarks when arguing with his opponents. In an interview with Britain’s Channel 4, host Jon Snow asked Ahmadinejad about Obama’s recent Cairo speech and whether he would be receptive to the U.S. president’s outstretched hand. "Which hand did he extend? His right hand or left hand?" Ahmadinejad quipped.
In his debate with Karroubi, he would make fun of his opponent’s status as a clergy man.
So, one way of undermining his image as a savvy debater would be to come back with your own quips and sarcasm. For instance, if he argues that Iran is the freest country in the world, which he often does, quickly respond with the following question: "Freer than Nazi Germany?"
Obviously, this tactic is not respectful, but it would sure be fun and perhaps could even expose the cheap rhetorical tricks that have allowed Ahmadinejad to stay in power for so long.