Ahmadinejad makes splash

UNITED NATIONS — Iran’s new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a splash at the United Nations last week, matching diplomatic toughness with unexpected public-relations skills in his debut on the world scene.
The hardliner flew into New York fighting what he called a “psychological war” with the West over his country’s nuclear programme and other issues, and ended up one of the stars of history’s largest summit.

Ahmadinejad delivered two closely watched speeches, was interviewed by Time and Newsweek magazines, went one-on-one with top CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour, held a UN news conference and breakfasted with US journalists.

Sporting a dark jacket, open-collared shirt and short beard, he contrasted sharply with his black-turbaned predecessor, cleric Mohammad Khatami, who cut a more measured and opaque figure. Ahmadinejad, 46, a former commando in Iran’s hardline Revolutionary Guards, took the podium at the summit Wednesday to denounce what he called the “unilateralism” of the world’s great powers, particularly the United States.

But he also showed a gentler side, offering condolences to victims of Hurricane Katrina and concluding his address with some verses from a 13th century Iranian poet on the universal nature of man.

Ahmadinejad reserved most of his fire for a speech to the UN General Assembly on Saturday that took even Western diplomats by surprise with its aggressive posture and tone.

The Iranian defended his country’s “inalienable” right to maintain a nuclear energy programme and railed at what he called policies of “nuclear apartheid” practiced by the United States and its allies.

He rejected demands to halt all uranium enrichment activities, even if they could be used to make a bomb. He warned that Tehran would renege on its international obligations if Washington tried to impose its will.

The slightly built Ahmadinejad, who took office last month, delivered his remarks in a steady monotone, punctuated by the occasional clenched fist. His gaze remained steely and a weak smile escaped only rarely from his lips.

Ahmadinejad did not shy away from making the diplomatic rounds to promote the Iranian side of the nuclear row, meeting with presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa to lobby for their support. On CNN, he shrugged off a question on whether he had been involved in the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran where 52 American diplomats were held hostages for 444 days. “I heard the same news after I was elected (in June) and quite frankly I laughed at it,” Ahmadinejad said of the allegation made by some ex-hostages who cited an old photo from a quarter-century ago.

“Either their memories have been erased and then replaced anew, I don’t know how they reached such a conclusion,” he said. I saw the picture … it didn’t even resemble me. Back then I didn’t have the beard that I do now.”

But the former mayor of Tehran, who came out of relative political obscurity to score a surprise victory in the June runoff election, also showed a capacity for presidential haughtiness when he chose.

At a news conference after his UN speech Saturday, he was asked by an Israeli journalist why Iran still sought the destruction of the Jewish state. Ahmadinejad paused only slightly before responding.

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