How Not to Get Played by Ahmadinejad

A reporter's guide to interviewing the Iranian president.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming to New York again next week for the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly. If the past is any guide, he will try to use the U.S. press as a prop to distract from his shaky standing at home.

Since he was first elected in 2005, the Iranian president has perfected the art of slipping and sliding around even the most seasoned interviewers. Typically, he answers questions with questions and deflects criticism by attacking the United States or Israel.

On previous trips, Ahmadinejad has insisted that Iran has "real elections" — despite copious evidence to the contrary — and that Iran’s economy does "not face serious problems," unlike the U.S. economy (another dubious assertion).

Reporters need to be armed with in-depth knowledge of Iran’s economy, politics, and society — and even then they may have difficulty getting Ahmadinejad to admit the truth. When I first interviewed him in 2006, he simply denied that the number of educated youth seeking visas to leave Iran had risen significantly since his election and that wealthy Iranians had moved billions of dollars to Dubai (both facts were true).

In advance of this year’s trip, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran has prepared a press guide with suggested questions, useful background on issues and prior interviews, and examples of what to avoid. The organization urges reporters to focus on Iranian human rights abuses in the aftermath of last year’s disputed presidential election and remind Ahmadinejad of Iran’s obligations as a signatory of international conventions on human rights.

The guide advises interviewers to be as specific as possible to make it harder for the Iranian leader to go off on tangents and indulge in generalities. Among suggested questions: Why did Ahmadinejad give another high position to former Tehran prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi, who has been indicted in connection with the detention of young demonstrators at Kahrizak prison last year? Many there were tortured and raped, and at least four young men died, including the son of a prominent official.

Instead of facing punishment, Mortazavi was made head of an anti-smuggling task force and was seated prominently at ceremonies marking the end of Ramadan led by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mehdi Khalaji, an Iranian scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says interviewers need to be blunt, even rude, to "make Ahmadinejad stop and think. Ask him why he has so many problems with clerics in what is supposed to be an Islamic republic?" Khalaji, a former seminarian in Iran, suggests, "Ask him why the clerics hate him."

As the Iranian government has moved to crush the reformist Green Movement, divisions have grown within the ruling conservative camp. Many clerics object to Ahmadinejad for promoting a superstitious folk interpretation of Shiite Islam and for increasing the power of the Revolutionary Guard over the clergy.

Others oppose him for giving high-level posts to an in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who openly champions Iranian nationalism over Islam — a no-no in the Islamic Republic. After last year’s election, Ahmadinejad named Mashaei Iran’s first vice president. When the supreme leader objected, Ahmadinejad made Mashaei his chief of staff. Recently, the president appointed Mashaei his special Middle East envoy. Rumor has it that Ahmadinejad wants Mashaei — whose son is married to Ahmadinejad’s daughter — to run for president in 2013 in part so that Ahmadinejad can seek a third term in 2017. Iran’s Constitution forbids more than two consecutive presidential terms.

Khalaji suggests that reporters ask Ahmadinejad: "Is it true that Mashaei wants to be president and you want to be Iran’s [Vladimir] Putin?"

Mehdi Jedinia, an Iranian-American journalist who previously worked for the Mehr news agency in Tehran, says someone should ask Ahmadinejad how he would manage if he didn’t have Israel or the United States to blame for Iran’s problems.

Jedinia also suggests asking Ahmadinejad why he has encouraged Iranian women to have more children given the country’s economic woes, including high unemployment.

Several analysts have urged reporters to avoid questions about the Holocaust, which rarely produce anything new and put Ahmadinejad on comfortable ground. Focusing on current issues has worked better; most recently, international pressure led Iranian authorities to free American hiker Sarah Shourd and convinced Iran not to stone to death Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman convicted of adultery.

Reporters who do not have to fear imprisonment or exile for doing their jobs — unlike the more than 30 journalists still in Iranian jails and the hundreds forced to flee Iran since June 2009 — have a duty to ask Ahmadinejad tough questions, says Hadi Ghaemi, director of the rights group that produced the press guide.

"Inside Iran, journalists and human rights defenders do not have the opportunity to hold him accountable," Ghaemi said. "When he travels abroad we all have an obligation to do so."

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