A few days later, I was summoned to meet Ahmadinejad at the White Building, part of the Presidential complex in downtown Tehran. The building, which was a Prime Minister’s office in the days of the Shah, is set in walled gardens, and its interior rooms have elegant panelled walls and polished wood floors covered with Persian carpets. Over the wall, in an adjacent compound, lives the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who rarely appears in public but is by constitutional writ the decisive power in Iran.
Ahmadinejad customarily wears a beige windbreaker, the unofficial uniform of the Basij, but when he received me he had on a gray suit and white shirt without a tie, in the unprepossessing style that is widespread among functionaries of the Islamic Republic. His face was covered in pancake makeup, and the cavernous salon where our meeting was to take place had been set with klieg lights, film parasols, and microphones. The interview, evidently, was going to be filmed for Iranian state television. A bevy of producers, translators, technicians, and bodyguards were gathered, staring. The President and I sat facing each other in the middle of the room. As technicians adjusted my earphone, the President’s press officer, an earnest man in his thirties, approached me to ask solicitously if I would refrain from asking about the likelihood of war between Iran and the United States, and ask instead about the possibilities for “peace.” He also suggested that the President would be pleased to talk about his concern about the global financial crisis and about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for which, he said, Ahmadinejad had offered “Iran’s help.”
Ahmadinejad is expected to attend the U.N. General Assembly when it convenes in New York at the end of the summer, and this interview was clearly a form of Presidential messaging. During my time in Iran, officials repeatedly echoed the theme that, in spite of the new sanctions, they were dealing from a strengthened position, and that they would like to resume nuclear talks, if the conditions were right. One Iran expert I spoke to, who asked not to be identified, told me that Iran wanted “what every country that has gone this route before them—like Pakistan and India—wants: nuclear legitimacy. They want a deal with the U.S. that will accept them as a nuclear power.”
In the Iranian imagination, a nuclear weapon is essential if the country is to assume its rightful place among the world’s leading nations. Iran once controlled a vast empire that included both Georgia and Tajikistan, and Iranians are proud nationalists, extremely sensitive about what they see as their country’s historic humiliations by Great Britain, the United States, and Russia. At the same time, they hold deep-seated feelings of cultural superiority over their neighbors. This has made for a prevailing world view that is at times both alarmingly naïve and toxically presumptuous.
The previous afternoon, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, Ahmadinejad’s senior media adviser and the director of IRNA, Iran’s official news agency, had called me to his office and politely suggested that I could be “more than just the President’s interviewer, but an instrument of peace.” I had it in my power, he said, to relay Iran’s “honest and good intentions to the United States.” When I raised the topic of Israel, he affected a mournful look. “Israel is unfortunately doomed,” he said. “I say this without any animosity but as a statement of fact. The rest of the world demands it, and the United States should separate itself, because it can gain nothing from this relationship except more trouble.” He smiled and added, “It is like a mother with a spoiled child, a child that is disobedient and which the mother does not discipline, but also a child which bothers the neighbors.”
When I suggested that a military confrontation might be a likelier prospect than peace, Javanfekr looked astonished. “You actually think that the United States, after everything—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—can still attack Iran?” he said. “They don’t even know what’s going on inside their military command in Kabul”—an allusion to the scandal in which General Stanley McChrystal was removed from his command—“so how can they hope to know what’s happening here?”
As I left Javanfekr’s office, he gave me a letter to forward to Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary. In it, he mentioned my interview with President Ahmadinejad and suggested that the White House should “positively reciprocate” by granting an interview with Obama, the first with a U.S. President by an Iranian reporter.