Middle East

Ahmadinejad, master of spin

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is interviewed by journalists from the Associated Press in New York
Image caption Mr Ahmadinejad has been making the round of US TV studios since arriving in New York

As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives in New York for the UN General Assembly, once again he joins the battle for public opinion, and once again he may have won the first skirmish.

As usual, he is making the round of American TV studios, appearing on the Charlie Rose show on PBS, and Larry King Live on CNN. Already, he has been interviewed by Christiane Amanpour on ABC News.

While some of the Western media denounce him as crazy, Mr Ahmadinejad has shown himself just as able at influencing opinion and swaying the media as any Western leader.

True, he is known for what are seen in the West as a number of high-profile "gaffes", most notably his claim, on a previous trip to New York, that "we don't have gays, like you do".

But he has also succeeded in moving the agenda onto a ground of his own choosing, and few, if any, of the Western journalists who have interviewed him have scored many points off him.

One of his favourite techniques is to take his apparent weakness, and use it to attack his opponents.

So, anticipating pressure for the release of Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, the two Americans held in Iran since July 2009, he has called for the release of a number of Iranians held in prison in the United States.

That issue dominated the early headlines, rather than his own human rights record, or the threat of stoning on Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.

It is a technique of "spin" that would be recognised by any presidential or prime ministerial press adviser around the world.

Slippery customer

Mr Ahmadinejad is so hard to interview that a lively conversation has been taking place on the internet over how to get the better of him.

In an article in the magazine Foreign Affairs, entitled "How not to get played by Ahmadinejad", former USA Today correspondent Barbara Slavin warns fellow journalists: "Since he was first elected in 2005, the Iranian president has perfected the art of slipping and sliding around even the most seasoned interviewers. Typically, he answers questions with questions and deflects criticism by attacking the United States or Israel."

Mr Ahmadinejad's technique is aided by the fact that most of the foreign interviews are carried out in translation - leaving the journalist less scope for jumping in, and less time to cross-examine.

And, his critics would argue, he has a flexible attitude to the truth that politicians facing more day-to-day scrutiny might find harder to get away with.

For example, in an interview on Sunday with Christiane Amanpour on the ABC News programme This Week, he dismissed as "propaganda" the stoning sentence defence lawyers say was imposed on Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.

When asked his own opinion on the issue of stoning in general, he simply avoided the question.

Then, he flatly denied the claim that the number of executions in Iran had dramatically increased since he took office, something attested both by human rights organisations and by international news agencies who keep a running tally of executions announced in the Iranian media.

At Columbia University in New York, he stated boldly that there was complete freedom in Iranian universities. Several students who went out to protest against him on his return to Tehran were promptly arrested.

Sometimes, he simply makes fun of the question.

Asked by Jon Snow of Channel 4 news about his response to US President Barack Obama's proffered "hand of friendship", he asked jokingly which hand the president had extended, the left or the right.

Underestimated

On other topics, he presents a radically different message to different audiences.

Questioned in New York on a previous visit about accusations that he denied the Holocaust and was anti-Semitic, he said he was simply calling for an open debate on the issue.

By contrast, speaking in Iran, he regularly rails against the small clique of Zionists whom he says control policy in Israel, the United States and other Western countries.

Such language can sound so extreme to Western ears that interviewers wrongly assume Mr Ahmadinejad is naive or stupid, and regularly underestimate him.

The problem is not confined to Western journalists. Mr Ahmadinejad also gave a tough fight to his political opponents in the televised debates that preceded the June 2009 election.

One of the opposition candidates, Mehdi Karroubi, looked particularly under-prepared by comparison.

But Western interviewers face special problems.

Image caption Iran has clearly been embarrassed and wrong-footed by the recent controversy over stoning

"Reporters need to be armed with in-depth knowledge of Iran's economy, politics and society - and even then, they may have difficulty getting Ahmadinejad to admit the truth," warns Barbara Slavin.

She advises her colleagues to avoid the Holocaust, which she says rarely provokes enlightening answers, and instead focus on specific, current topics.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, has even produced a 56-page "reporters' guide" on how to interview Iranian officials.

It includes what it calls "myths versus facts" on Iran's human rights record, suggested questions for President Ahmadinejad, and some of his answers to previous questions.

Appreciative audiences

Mr Ahmadinejad's savvy use of the media might frustrate his opponents, but does it matter?

His first audience is the public opinion back home in Iran, yet opinion there is so highly polarised, there is not much of a swing vote.

Mr Ahmadinejad prides himself on his leadership of public opinion in the developing world, most notably the Arab world. That is where his comments on the Holocaust and the existence of Israel meet an often appreciative audience.

But there is also an ongoing battle for opinion amongst educated Westerners.

Many liberals and opponents of the US government are receptive to his accusation of double standards by Western democracies.

Sometimes, they seem more inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt than they would leaders of their own governments.

For example, while most Iranians have very clear opinions on whether Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election was rigged, Westerners still pore over the evidence and re-examine the statistics.

There is a body of opinion in the West that the allegations of election fraud are simply Western propaganda designed to "soften up" public opinion before an attack on Iran.

It does not always work in Mr Ahmadinejad's favour.

Critics of Iran's human rights record have caused problems for President Lula of Brazil, after he attempted to mediate over the Iranian nuclear dispute, and appeared, to some, to be coming to Mr Ahmadinejad's defence.

And Iran has clearly been embarrassed and wrong-footed by the recent controversy over stoning, something which strikes at the core of Mr Ahmadinejad's attempt to portray the Islamic Republic as a messenger of new and purer values to the world.

So the battle for opinion on the issue of Iran does continue. It does matter.

And while both supporters and opponents of President Ahmadinejad may believe firmly that truth is on their side, no-one is about to win an easy victory.

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