Talking to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—and the opposition—about Iran today.
by Jon Lee Anderson 
Not long after arriving in Tehran, I attended a press conference held by Ahmadinejad—at which I was the only Westerner present—and not a single reporter mentioned the Green Movement. When I asked an Iranian journalist about the omission, he raised his eyebrows and asked, “Why ask about something that doesn’t exist?” Instead, Ahmadinejad took questions about the latest clerical demands for stricter dress codes. This is an important issue for many younger Iranians—in north Tehran, the streets are full of dyed-blond hair, spray tans, and Amy Winehouse-style beehive hairdos—and Ahmadinejad had angered conservative clerics by opposing their demands. A few days later, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance published official guidelines for appropriate hair styles for Iranian men: pompadours were permitted, but not gelled, spiked, or overlong hair.
Most of the other questions had to do with the controversy around Iran’s nuclear program. On June 9th, new sanctions had been approved by the U.N. Security Council—with the notable assent of China and Russia—and soon after a separate measure was announced by the U.S. and several other Western governments. Among other things, the American sanctions demanded that foreign firms doing business with Iran, particularly in the oil and gas sectors, give up their interests or risk being banned from the U.S. financial markets. Ahmadinejad retaliated by announcing that Iran would suspend all nuclear talks with the West until late August. Before they could be resumed, he said, Iran must know the position of its negotiating partners in the P5-plus-1 group—the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany—toward the “Zionist regime” and its nuclear weapons. Listening to Ahmadinejad, it was hard not to feel that a confrontation was looming.
Throughout the press conference, he seemed calm and confident, almost cocky. The uneasy manner that characterized his public appearances a few years ago was gone. Since winning reëlection, he had neutralized the main reformist politicians, and was now pursuing his rivals in Iran’s conservative establishment. In recent weeks, he had resumed his ongoing fight with ex-President Rafsanjani—a wealthy ayatollah who is regarded as the ultimate patron of Iran’s reform movement—by mounting a campaign to gain control of one of his most lucrative power bases, the Islamic Azad University. With three hundred and fifty-seven campuses across Iran and some 1.4 million students and faculty members, the university is among Iran’s wealthiest institutions. Ahmadinejad had accused Azad of providing support to the reformists and proposed a bill that would allow a government takeover. Parliament voted against the measure; then, after Ahmadinejad’s loyalists angrily protested and threatened violence, it reversed its decision. (The battle for control has since moved to the courts.) At the press conference, when the President was asked about Rafsanjani he merely glanced away and said, airily, “Next question?”