Babak Yektafar is the Editor-in-Chief of WashingtonPrism.org. He is a graduate of Farleigh Dickinson University with a B.A. in Communications. From 1999 to 2005, Babak was a producer with C-SPAN network’s national live morning program, Washington Journal.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: On Tuesday, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations. This was part of a whirlwind of public interviews where he expressed Iran’s position on its nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and much more. While it’s clear he was trying to make Iran’s case to the American people, he was also or even more so speaking to the Iranian and Arab public opinion. To assess how the events of the past few days in New York were received in Iran and across the Middle East is Babak Yektafar, editor in chief of Washington Prism magazine and a former producer with C-SPAN’s Washington Journal. Babak, thank you for joining us. The president of Iran was subject to a lot of abuse in New York from his introduction by the Columbia University’s president Bollinger to newspapers and demonstrations. How was this received in Iran and across the Middle East?
BABAK YEKTAFAR, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, WASHINGTONPRISM.ORG: Those who were the publications and also the news services, for example, who may be considered as pro-Ahmadinejad concentrated on how Mr. Ahmadinejad brought the case of Iran to the United States and that he didn’t back away from any of his previous assertions. And this shows the real strength of Iran. And those who may be more aligned with the reformist camp—or maybe you can call them anti-Ahmadinejad regime—basically also attacked the way that the head of the Iranian state was dealt with or was received, particularly by an educational institution, such as Columbia University.
JAY: There was a letter by seven chancellors and presidents of Iranian universities to the Columbia president, Bollinger, asking him ten tough questions about U.S. policy and other things. But to what extent was this speech by Ahmadinejad meant to strengthen his support in Iran? And if so, did it achieve that?
YEKTAFAR: To be very honest with you, as you know, of course a lot of people labeled this as Mr. Ahmadinejad’s charm offensive. I don’t think there were that many people in Iran who were hopeful that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s trip to the United States was going to do anything in regards to maybe reducing the current heightened confrontation between Iran and the United States. I don’t think there was that much hope for it. But then again, when something like that happens, you always somehow feel that maybe there is something about it, particularly because recently, within the last two weeks, it seemed that Mr. Ahmadinejad was having a softer tone with the United States. He had basically said that we have no problems talking with the United States as long as we’re treated on equal terms, and he’s made these kind of openings, he’s led us to believe that maybe there is some softening. And, of course, a lot of it also has to do with certain recent movements in Iran, the changing of the head of the Islamic Republic Guard, as well as the election of Mr. Rafsanjani, who was in competition with Mr. Ahmadinejad for the higher chamber, the Council of Experts, and so on and so forth. So there’s a lot of domestic stuff that also played into this. But I believe that from at least the kind of feedback I’ve got is that, again, this kind of approach, this kind of reception as an Iranian did not sit necessarily well with most of the Iranian population, even though a great many of them might be against his policy.
JAY: Would you call it outrage? I would think that if even Americans, who now maybe 65, 70 percent are critical of Bush, if Bush got this kind of treatment almost anywhere, even a lot of Americans would have been close to outrage. Certainly, in most countries this would give rise to outrage.
YEKTAFAR: This is exact same situation. I don’t know if the outrage would be as vocal as you might expect, only because it may seem that now they’re supporting Mr. Ahmadinejad, but deep down they were very much against his policies, and I would say probably right now the majority. But because as the head of state he was treated in such a manner, there is something about this Iranian, but, I get, it’s not exclusive. You gave a very, very good example that if Mr. Bush as president is treated that way in a foreign country, you would see across the line some sort of a support for the president. So it did have some sort of a backlash, at least among the Iranian population.
JAY: This election of Rafsanjani as the head of the experts advisory committee that oversees the supreme leader was seen as the election of someone who understood the West, could talk to the West. So is part of this visit of Ahmadinejad to prove that, oh, you don’t need Rafsanjani, I can do it?
YEKTAFAR: The election of Mr. Rafsanjani, kind of beating, essentially, a very hard-line candidate in attaining that position, sent a signal that Mr. Rafsanjani is starting to gather momentum. And as has been the case, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who’s very good at kind of trying to balance everything around him for his own preservation, I think put some pressure on Mr. Ahmadinejad that you need to soften your tone. And he got the same kind of advice from people advising him. And I think it had more to do with that than Mr. Ahmadinejad essentially changing his way. I mean, he’s not really that savvy when it comes to diplomacy. And as we saw in some of these interviews that he had, that the Columbia University appearance, and, so on and so forth, he didn’t take anything back in regards to what he has said about Israel, although he has softened it a little bit. But essentially he stayed on message, if you will.
JAY: Is part of his more conciliatory tone in the last week to do with a real concern that the United States might attack? How worried is the Iranian government about this?
YEKTAFAR: Well, there are two things. Iranian people, extremely worried. What I keep hearing is that a lot of people think that it’s a matter of days, as opposed to weeks or months. The government on the surface, of course, keeps saying that (A) it’s not going to happen. They keep talking about the fact that the United States is way too occupied in Iraq. They’re going to talk about the fact that the Strait of Hormuz is going to be closed down, and that’s going to wreak havoc through the economy of the world. I mean, there are a number of examples that they bring in, they think it’s insane that the United States would attack Iran in any shape or form, be it a full-fledged invasion or just strategic strikes, military strikes. But deep down they are worried about it. Deep down they are finding ways to prepare themselves for such an attack, be it strengthening their proxies in the region or outside of the region, or maybe adding some more arsenal and changing some of the strategy that they were dealing with. So they are worried about that, even though, as I said, on the surface you don’t hear that from the way they talk.
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