For much of the United Nations General Assembly this week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the talk of New York, with his boisterous commentary dominating headlines as he sat down for interviews with some of America's most prominent journalists.
Since arriving in the United States Sunday, Mr. Ahmadinejad has delivered a mélange of seemingly contradictory public and private speeches. His infamously fiery rhetoric at this week's UN General Assembly meetings focused – as usual – on external political issues such as nuclear proliferation, the perpetrators of 9/11, the “death” of capitalism, and the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As expected, he was heavily criticized.
Less bombastic in interviews
But at private receptions and during one-on-one interviews, Ahmadinejad sought to soften the international community's view of Iran, counterbalancing the impact of his boisterous public commentary with a more conciliatory tone.
This tactic served to convey a message to the US and the rest of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) that Iran wants to restart direct negotiations over its nuclear program, without undermining the president's public image as a fearless, outspoken leader in the eyes of Iranians.
For now, it appears that Ahmadinejad's strategy of mollifying his domestic critics by balancing his “softness” in New York with his trademark “toughness” may have worked.
“The subjects the president chose to speak about at the United Nations General Assembly and in his interview with Larry King were very wise [choices],” Ahmad Tavakoli, a high-profile principlist member of Iranian Parliament and a government critic, told the Fars News Agency today.
General Assembly speech
In his highly anticipated speech to the General Assembly Thursday, Ahmadinejad once again touched a nerve, prompting US representatives to walk out in protest after he asserted the possibility that the United States played a role in 9/11 in order to create an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
The global reaction was immediate. Headlines blasted Ahmadinejad for delivering such a harsh speech just hours after President Obama told the General Assembly that the “door is open” for negotiations with the Islamic Republic.
Among Iranian blogs and news outlets run by Iranian diaspora scattered across the globe, reactions ranged from quiet praise to apathy, scorn, and disappointment. Since the country's June 2009 presidential elections, the Internet has become a crucial outlet for politicians who enthusiastically critique one another.
State and semi-official news agencies in Iran reported on the speech without fanfare, focusing predominantly on the Iranian president's call for UN reform and proclamation that 2011 be “the year of nuclear disarmament and nuclear energy for all.”
Even on the popular Alef News website, which is affiliated with Mr. Tavakoli, the headline for the story about Ahmadinejad's interview with Larry King was flanked by an equally prominent film review of Angelina Jolie's movie "Salt."
Editorials and articles in Iranian opposition news outlets have so far paid scant attention to Ahmadinejad's General Assembly speeches and have instead focused on his one-on-one news interviews, arguing that the president's claims about press and political freedoms in Iran differ from the realities on the ground.
“It is interesting that so many reporters [in the US] want interviews with Ahmadinejad, when what he says are lies and blatant denials of realities that took place during the last year that are documented in pictures and films and news reports that are under pressure of censorship,” wrote an editor on the Kalameh news website, which is affiliated with political opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.
View from Iranian bloggers
Iranian bloggers and journalists outside of Iran offer a more detailed and cynical view of the Iranian president's General Assembly speech.
“As expected, his words [on Thursday] were not much different from his other public talks. [But] such 'duplicitous' behavior on the part of President Ahmadinejad is confusing for those seeking to understand what exactly he is trying to accomplish by making such public statements that are so vastly different from those he makes behind the scenes at private gatherings,” writes Iranian journalist and blogger Camelia Entekhabifard. “Mr. Ahmadinejad wasted a valuable opportunity.”
“Pedestrian,” a popular 20-something Iranian blogger and engineering student in New York, criticized the fascination with the Iranian president's public flamboyance.
“Hundreds of people had come just to see him – I know that because like me, they walked in before his session and left right after. They had taken off from work, walked from all over the neighborhood, to hear 'Ahmadinejad.' They were there for the show, and he did not disappoint,” wrote Pedestrian.
“I have seen dozens of presidents in the past few days.... But no one was as jovial, no one seemed to be getting that ultimate kick as our man Mahmoud,” he added. But “if the Americans were to ignore him, if no one was to walk out, if Larry King ... were to rethink his invite, we would see a very different Ahmadinejad indeed."