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Mr. Ahmadinejad was here again last week with nothing new to add to his old line. Upon arrival in the U.S. on May 3rd, he said in a Persian interview that the purpose of his trip was not to attract the trust and goodwill of anyone. That same evening he said in an interview with Charlie Rose “Iran is not worried about US sanctions; it is used to 30 years of sanctions.” Later he added “Sanctions are meaningless in the world of free trade.” Both these claims are open to debate. Certainly, Iranians who already live in harsh economic conditions would beg to differ with their “President.” Nonetheless, Mr. Ahmadinejad is telling the truth, when he says defending the Iranian nuclear agenda, or avoiding sanctions, are not the goals of his trip.
His main objectives I believe are two, one international and one domestic. On the international scene he requires a smoke screen to hide the horrendous executions (the latest figure, 4 young men and 1 woman yesterday including a young teacher called Farzad Kamangar) and human right abuses that are intensifying as the anniversary of the disputed June 2009 election approaches. The nuclear issue, and Mr. Ahmadinejad’s headline grabbing dismissive attitude provides this coverage by diverting attention from these actions to the fear of a nuclear Holocaust. On the domestic side, he needs to project the image of a confident, legitimate and internationally recognized President for the country. Upon return to Iran, his state-run television will use carefully selected excerpts from the trip to piece together a heroic Ahmadinejad embarrassing western reporters and winning the hearts and minds of those oppressed by the west. In the process it deals a demoralizing blow to the seekers of reform in Iran by highlighting the fact that he gets the attention of the U.S./ the world not them. He represents the country. The central message: the post election painful and bloody struggle for social justice is already a thing of the past.
His dismissive smirk notwithstanding, Mr. Ahmadinejad has always cared deeply about the world opinion. He uses his security forces to prevent the reformist opposition leaders from getting any international attention. Weeks before his unnecessary trip of May 3rd, his police force prevented the former Iranian President Mohamad Khatami from leaving the country. Parleman News, the official website of the minority faction of the Iranian parliament, reported that on April 15 former President Mohammad Khatami, about to leave Iran for Japan to attend a summit on nuclear disarmament, was turned back from Tehran airport. There are no legal charges against Mr. Khatami and he is unlikely to have been able to do any damage to the current government besides being received respectfully by some of the world leaders and Iranians living aboard. Weeks before that, Simin Behbahani, the Iranian Poet Laureate and Head of the Iranian Writers Association, was also prevented from leaving the country. Behbahani, a deeply respected national figure, is an 83 year-old poet twice-nominated for the Noble prize. She could have caused no harm to the current regime except through attracting the respect and the attention of the western media and the Iranians living abroad for her outspoken defense of a democratic Iran.
Back in Iran, as the heroic basher of the U.S. Media, Mr. Ahmadinejad has the most disdainful remarks for these reporters and the questions they usually ask him. May be, after all, he has a point in not thinking highly of a media which fails to take him to task for the kind of criminal government he is presiding over. Lending him, instead, its publicity tools, unwittingly, by showcasing his trip and by interviewing him on outdated and irresolvable issues such as “Is Secretary Clinton a friend of Iran?” and “Is Iran afraid of sanctions?”, “The current location of Osama Ben Laden” and the like. Mr. Stephanopoulos must be totally unaware of the long term animosity between Al-Qaeda and Iran. Even so, does he really think that if Ahmadinejad were to hide Ben Laden in Iran, he would confess to it on ABC? In these interviews, which are carried out in conditions of near zero expertise on the realty of life in present Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad comes across as confident and brave and the interviewer as irritated, skeptical, and frequently subjected to the interviewee’s ridicule. In the process, the criminal behavior of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government, including the total silencing of journalism, the continued arrests, assassinations, and executions, the re-opening of the Karizak Prison, and the like, are not even brought up.
If a well-informed reporter ever interviewed Mr. Ahmadinejad, s/he might ask how could he have run on the platform of fighting corruption when the most recent investigations – even though real investigations are close to dreams in present day Iran – have described his government as “the most corrupt” among all governments following the 1979 revolution. According to this report, prepared by the country’s top investigator Mr. Mustafa Pourmohammadi, submitted to the Supreme Leader and leaked to the press, 27 officials appointed by Mr. Ahmadinejad are under investigation for embezzlement.
Other informed questions would include, if his government had 63% of the vote, why ten months after the election is the number of those kept in jail still in the thousands (most without a stated crime and without a lawyer), why are there new arrests on a daily basis, why are the university dorms across the country continue to be raided injuring and arresting more students. Why does Iran have the largest number of official reporters in jail (67 to be precise)? Why do eight out of the eleven highest ranking Iranian clerics refuse to even meet and speak with Mr. Ahmadinejad? Why did the workers who on May first demonstrated in at least five major cities in Iran claimed their management to be corrupt and their wages unpaid. The list could go on with the latest item on it being the assassination of progressive academics by unknown individuals who miraculously find their way through the maze of the security forces into their offices and attack them for “personal” reasons. Could these attacks which are carried out only against the supporters of the Green Movement be aiming at terrorizing the student and faculty opposition crucial historically to the survival of social justice movements in Iran? Could it be because they are still refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government?
Iran is a large and complex country. It is not easy to set a clear timetable for the collapse of its current brutal government. What is clear, however, is that its condition is far from stable and the opposition to it far from quelled. The government keeps the lid on things by walking an extremely fine line. On May first, The teachers and the workers day in Iran, Mr. Ahmadinejad crossed this line by using his usual trick of trying to get into Tehran University from the back door to speak to a group of handpicked students – so a film of the event could put his victory on national display. In a matter of minutes, thousands of students had gathered to protest his presence on the university campus. He left the way he always has, quietly and through the back door http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxq4gOhNTCc .
Neither Charlie Rose nor George Stephanopoulos who interviewed Ahmadinejad seem to be aware of any of the above facts or even more recent events such as workers and student demonstrations in a dozen Iranian cities on May 1st. Worse still, they did not seem to know that Professor Motamedi, President of Amirkabir Polytechnic University in Tehran, and a supporter of the Green Movement was stabbed in his office on the same day that Mr. Ahmadinejad was assuring Charlie Rose and millions of American viewers that life in Iran had returned to normal. In fact the situation at the universities is so grave that the world academics have created an online initiative appealing to the international community for its support of academics in Iran: http://digilander.libero.it/university4iran/
Despite the sensors, the filters, and the punishments, educated Iranians (whose rate of literacy at age 15-25 is above 92%) continue to view themselves as citizens of the world. They follow the reactions of the world in the hope of recognition for their struggle in one of the harshest conditions of suppression. They know that Ahmadinejad’s government has moved its violence to student dorms, interrogation rooms, and prisons to prevent them from showing their wounds to the world. He prevents them from making headlines by generating his own headlines built around Israel bashing and nuclear sensationalism to persuade them that the U.S. / world media has abandoned them. There is a “wiping off the map” going on here and that is wiping the struggle of Iranians for social justice off the world’s consciousness by hiding them under a smoke screen.
Mr. Ahmadinejad will take any opportunity to visit the U.S. even when heads of states are not invited and he has nothing new to add to his old lines. While here, he will promote his creative version of life in Iran: free, strong, and unafraid of war or sanctions. And, he will reiterate his old uncompromising position on the Iranian nuclear industry to encourage his opponents to repeat their threats including the unrealistic threats of a military strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities. The renewal of verbal threats of military attack against Iran justifies more sensor and more executions.
In the meantime, Iranians are watching…and enduring bravely. One can only hope that their endurance will outlast the Iranian government’s ability to maintain its charade of legitimacy.
FATEMEH KESHAVARZ is Chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literature at Washington University and the author of Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran.