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Iran’s President Ahmadinejad Challenges President Bush to Debate

August 29, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: But first, the Iran story. Margaret Warner covered the Iranian president’s news conference in Tehran today, and I spoke with her earlier this evening.

Margaret, hello again.


JIM LEHRER: Look, we know the news conference was very long. What struck you the most about it?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what struck me was, on the one hand, he didn’t say anything new in the nuclear controversy. Iran he seemed to indicate isn’t going to give any ground to the U.N., even though it’s just 48 hours from the deadline.

What struck me was that he went right on offense. He, of course, challenged President Bush to the debate, but even more kind of fundamentally he challenged the Security Council itself. He said they are unjust now and illegitimate and they’re this holdover from the post-World War II era in which five countries have veto power and thus much more power than any other country.

And, you know, he really went after America and Britain, both of whom have a history here, of course, in Iran. He said, you know, they might have been the victors after World War II, but they still call themselves the victors. They’re still imposing their will on everyone for their own self-interest.

And he said, you know, how long will the Americans and the British be the owners and look at other nations as slaves? He finally said, you know, the clear question is that all this started after World War II.

And he said, how long must they continue, meaning the Security Council apparatus? He said, 60, 100, 1,000 years? I mean, how long must some nations think they’re owners and the rest are second-class citizens? And he did it with a kind of passion and conviction that did startle me.

JIM LEHRER: And did it come over as an effective argument, or was it just simple rhetoric?

MARGARET WARNER: He actually came off as a real master political showman, and that really surprised me, because you don’t see much coverage of him. First of all, he’s small, but he’s very brash and he’s very cocky. And he delivers his arguments with great flourish, completely unrehearsed, completely unscripted, no notes. I mean, he may be rehearsed, but he has no notes.

And he delivers them with a kind of passion that, you know, I think people who don’t like what he’s saying could actually find scary. But he does make them effectively. It’s not like an old-style, you know, quote, “revolutionary leader” who repeats sort of the same line over and over. He had kind of a agility, a verbal agility that was pretty remarkable.

Media coverage

JIM LEHRER: Now, there were more than 100 reporters there, right?

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. In fact, they said 150, and the room was absolutely filled. I mean, one thing about press conferences is they are reassuringly the same all across the world. I mean, there may be women reporters in head scarves, but it's the same jostling and so on. But, yes, there were a lot of reporters.

JIM LEHRER: And who were they? Did they come from all over the world? Were they mostly local Iranian people? Who were they?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, there were lots and lots of Iranians, but there were also lots and lots from other Muslim countries, in particular Arab countries. Certainly, there were some from Lebanon, other Arab countries, and then there were a few Westerners. There were some Americans; there were some Germans.

JIM LEHRER: Did the reporters challenge him on anything? Was it a confrontational, good, old Washington-type news conference or was it another kind?

MARGARET WARNER: You had the questions you'd expect, the kind of obsequious questions, "Oh, great leader, how great are you?" from some reporters.

But there was also a lot of jousting with other journalists. And he really knew how to play his crowd in a very political way. He never bristled at a question. He did artfully evade once or twice, but he seemed to enjoy sparring with the reporters.

He has this some would say devilish, some would say fiendish smile, you know, one moment, and then have a sharp retort the next. Now, no follow-ups were allowed, but it was still -- it was kind of an Iranian version of the kind of raw political talent that we've seen, you know, in American political figures, I don't know, LBJ or Bill Clinton, where they have that power to fill up a room. He had that power to do that today.

Confronting the United States

JIM LEHRER: Did you feel that he was enjoying his confrontation with the United States?

MARGARET WARNER: He didn't appear to be relishing the confrontation with the United States. And he wasn't saying the Iranian equivalent of "bring it on."

But when he was asked -- in fact, he was asked specifically about Bolton's threat or vow to try to put together even a limited coalition and sanctions, and one of the, I think, Iranian reporters said, "You know, you've always said don't worry about sanctions, but the Europeans join the Americans, should the Iranian people get ready?" And he just said, you know, "Our economy is self-sufficient. You know, the Iranian nation is strong. We furnish almost all our needs."

And he said, "A nation that empty-handedly" -- meaning because we've already had U.S. sanctions -- "can create a complete nuclear fuel cycle is capable of handling other problems, everything else, as well." So, in that sense, he was trying to convey confidence to the public here, which is worried about the economic prospects of sanctions.

But, no, he did not sound as if he relishes the confrontation. In fact, he kept saying, "We ought to be talking."

JIM LEHRER: All right. Margaret, again, thank you. And we'll be talking to you again soon.