Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance at the National Press Club Monday was a mix of religious lecture, smiling denial of problems in Iran, intransigence on recognizing Israel, and a bit of media history.
It was media history because Mr. Ahmadinejad was not physically present to face the Washington press corps. Instead, his image was beamed into the National Press Club from a studio in New York City, making it the first-ever videoconference speakers luncheon in the 75 years the Press Club has been holding the sessions. Previous guests have included international speakers both famous and infamous: Nikita Khrushchev, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, and Yasser Arafat.
Some 16 television cameras and roughly 100 reporters and journalism students showed up in the club's 13th-floor ballroom Monday to watch Ahmadinejad appear on two flat-screen TVs. The Iranian president, wearing a blue, open-collar shirt and a suit jacket, made 20 minutes of opening remarks through a translator. At many points, his remarks sounded like a sermon. "We believe in the sublime value of humanity," Ahmadinejad said with the United Nations building visible behind him, where he'll deliver an address Tuesday. "To God, man is a unified truth," beyond borders, he added.
After his opening remarks, Ahmadinejad took 30 minutes of questions that Press Club president Jerry Zremski of The Buffalo News selected from cards submitted by reporters in the room.
When asked whether Iran and Israel could coexist in peace, Ahmadinejad responded, "We do not recognize that regime because it is based on discrimination" and, "It consistently threatens its neighbors."
Many of the protests surrounding another appearance by Ahmadinejad – at New York's Columbia University Monday afternoon – centered on comments he has made about Israel. The Iranian president has said the Holocaust is "a myth" and called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." As a result, New York tabloids reacted to his visit with vigor. "The Evil has landed," said the New York Daily News. The New York Post referred to him as the "madman Iran prez."
At the press club event, several pointed questions arose about alleged human rights abuses in Iran, including charges that political dissenters and journalists had been imprisoned. Ahmadinejad was having none of it. "Our people are the freest in the world," he said. "The freest women in the world are the women in Iran." Those who make human rights charges against his government "are unaware of the situation in Iran," he added.
For those who might remain skeptical, he offered an invitation to "everyone in this session to come and visit Iran for themselves."
Ahmadinejad also denied that Iran is involved in smuggling weapons into Iraq, as the US government has charged. "This does not exist," he said. "The problem of the US military lies elsewhere."
The Iranian president ridiculed the French foreign minister for suggesting the United States and France should prepare for war with Iran. "The US and France don't speak for the world," he said. "We think talk of war is basically a propaganda tool."
The final question was whether Ahmadinejad planned to run for reelection. He ducked it as have many of the US politicians who have appeared at the club. "What do you think," Ahmadinejad countered.