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'A Media All on His Own': Ahmadinejad's Twilight Stand

by ARASH KARAMI in Washington, D.C.

29 Sep 2011 00:39Comments

A look at the president's New York trip -- possibly his last -- and his adviser on U.S. affairs.

[ notebook ] The arrival of Iran's president the last few Septembers in New York has had the feel of the circus coming to town. High-profile correspondents from the major news networks line up to interview and spar with the wily Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in hopes that he will say something more outrageous than the year before. Various Iranian opposition and Israeli groups gather to protest his presence. The New York Post and Daily News splash their tabloid front pages with his face and headlines like "The Evil Has Landed!" And Ahmadinejad has surely not disappointed those who came to watch the media blitz that follows the Iranian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly.

Western media outlets typically append to the Iranian president's name such epithets as "the Holocaust-denying," "9/11 conspiracy theorist," who "claims there are no Iranian homosexuals." These descriptions repeat on a loop in the same manner as the "mother of all battles" Saddam Hussein promised just before the Gulf War in 1991. But much as they are fodder for the insatiable American media, they do not resonate in the Iranian American community, which has concerns of its own.

Iranian Americans instead watch in disbelief, and often in indignant rage, as Ahmadinejad denies that there are political prisoners in Iran, claims that everyone there is free to say whatever they want, and delivers other outlandish statements with such a straight face that one must question if he is completely out of the loop as to what is going on in his own country. His pronouncements were so extravagant this year that an op-ed on the Iranian website Ayandeh suggested that instead of coming off as "untruthful or at least uninformed," it would be better for the president to deflect questions concerning human rights in the Islamic Republic by stating that they "they have nothing to do with me."

On other matters, however, Ahmadinejad was up to his familiar games. When CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked him about homosexuals in Iran, Ahmadinejad, crudely and very suggestively, stated that perhaps Blitzer had more knowledge of such things. In his interview with Charlie Rose, he suggested trading chairs, apparently prompted by the interviewer's frequent interruptions. Perhaps if Ahmadinejad and his advisers were more prepared, they would have known that Rose's interruptions are the norm. But then again, perhaps Ahmadinejad and his team already knew what to expect and the president was simply taking advantage of a moment he had anticipated all along.

Studying Ahmadinejad over the years and the amount of attention and controversy he has attracted, one wonders if he and his media advisers have concocted a grand plan. This year, he arrived in New York with approximately 100 guests and advisers, a large amount by any country's standards and for which he was subjected to much criticism back home.

Among this entourage, one person stands out for the controversy he has sparked inside Iran. Dr. Hamid Mowlana, former professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and author of dozens of books on communications and international relations, officially signed on as Ahmadinejad's American adviser in August 2008. Mowlana has been given credit -- or blame -- for arranging Ahmadinejad's invitation to Columbia University in 2007 in which he famously denied the existence of homosexuality in Iran.

Mowlana, most recently seen sitting two places to the right of Ahmadinejad during the president's CNN interview last week, was born in Tabriz; he moved to Tehran as a child after the Soviet occupation of northern Iran, an occupation he calls the "most traumatic experience of his life." When he was 20, he immigrated to the United States to pursue a degree in economics. He received an M.S. in journalism and a Ph.D. in communications and political science from Northwestern University.

Embarking on an illustrious academic career in the United States that lasted for several decades, Mowlana was also a frequent contributor to Kayhan, a hardline conservative daily that mostly reflects Iran's official policies. He has written extensively for the paper about the decline of American hegemony. He recently retired from academia and now operates a foundation in Iran for which he reportedly received a grant of $337,000 from the Ahmadinejad administration.

In his role as presidential adviser and leveraging his reputation as a scholar, Mowlana has appeared on Islamic Republic state media numerous times, extolling the virtues of Iran's unique brand of democracy. After the 2009 election, he labeled protestors "rioters," and in March 2010, during a conference in Tehran, he warned that the United States was waging "soft warfare" against Iran by trying to influence "clerics, professors, students, journalists, businessmen, [and] managers of big companies."

Author of Knowing America: Rise and Fall of an Empire, Mowlana has been a harsh critic of U.S. foreign policy, which is not unusual for an academic who spent four decades working in the country. But according to Professor Rasool Nafisi of Strayer University, other academics "are not necessarily endorsing the Islamic Republic's internal and external policies, as is the case with Mowlana."

Interestingly, Mowlana's one-sided criticism of America has not endeared him to everyone inside Iran. When the news that he had been hired as an adviser to Ahmadinejad broke, analyst Ali Mohammad Khazaei asked rhetorically in his blog, "Where has Mr. Mowlana been the last 30 years? How is it that all of the sudden he arrives out of nowhere and he is more revolutionary than other revolutionaries and more Muslim than other Muslims?" Khazaei went on to ask how the same person could write for Kayhan both under Mostafa Mesbahzadeh, its founding editor-in-chief who ran the paper during the Shah's rule, and then under Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor-in-chief under the current regime. In his own defense, Mowlana -- who did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment on this story -- has written that he was the editor merely of Kayhan's cultural and economic sections under Mesbahzadeh.

According to a piece that appeared on the Tabnak website, Mowlana's official designation as adviser raised a range of questions, especially about his dual American and Iranian citizenship. Asked about his past in an interview with Etemad, Mowlana stated, "I will not answer any questions regarding my past or engage in any personal discussions." Nonetheless, he proceeded to describe the decades he has spent in America, something he has done consistently in other interviews, evidently to affirm his credentials as an expert on U.S. policy matters. Asked if Ahmadinejad's speeches have been beneficial to Iran's national interests, Mowlana asserted that they have, stating his belief that on the basis of comments by various world leaders, "no one can doubt that in the last four years that Iran's prestige and respect have increased."

In an extensive article on Ayandeh, Professor Hesam al-Din Ashna of Imam Sadegh University defended Mowlana against various criticisms, such as that his political views before the Revolution were vague or concealed, that details in his autobiography -- such as a purported meeting with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other prominent figures before the Revolution -- seem implausible, and that his work as the founder of the International Communications Program at American University's School of International Service would have brought him into contact with U.S. intelligence agencies. Ashna countered that Mowlana's work and "relations with conservative publications and institutions [after the Revolution] are widespread and deep," and that it was only wise to take advantage of his expertise and experience in matters of international relations.

It remains difficult to assess what, if any, influence, Mowlana has had on Ahmadinejad and his General Assembly speeches, but an examination of the context of Ahmadinejad's U.N. appearances provides a hint.

Some observers, such as University of Tehran Professor Reza Marandi, believe that Ahmadinejad is speaking specifically to the Iranian and Arab/Muslim street when he addresses the U.N. "There is no question," said Professor Mansour Farhang of Bennington College in a phone interview, "that there are groups of frustrated and humiliated people in the third world who respond emotionally" to the types of calculatedly outrageous statements for which the Iranian president is known. However, he adds, "These are passing emotions.... It does not achieve anything concrete for the national interests of the country."

But if the Middle Eastern street were Ahmadinejad's primary target audience, would not the spotlight U.N. speech suffice? What explains the frenzy of media appearances while he is in New York?

Professor Nafisi explains that the "trouble with Ahmadinejad's way of thinking is he thinks he knows secrets that other people do not comprehend," and believes that by repeating and revealing these secrets in the American media he is in essence "liberating" the people of the world. This line of thinking is a natural fit with Mowlana's statements in the Etemad interview, in which he claimed that Ahmadinejad has become "a form of media [resaneh] all on his own...his personal potential to communicate with the people of the world has reached beyond the electronic media of today."

Regardless of the media blitz arranged by his advisers and the intention behind it, Ahmadinejad's U.N. speech last week did not seem to carry the same weight as in previous years; even the walkouts by several delegations came off as predetermined and old. It would be uncharitable to fault the embattled president for not delivering new grist for the media mill -- his struggles at home have well been publicized around the world. Many in Iran predict that the president will either not come back to New York during the final year of his administration, or if he does, it will be with significantly reduced powers.

If this was his last appearance at the U.N., its aura reflecting the twilight of his administration's power, Ahmadinejad and his media advisers will have to find new avenues for him to fulfill his role as a "media" unto himself. But according to Professor Farhang, "No government, no political elite, no educated person ever took him seriously as president...so I doubt we'll ever hear from him once his presidency is over."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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