As Ahmadinejad Speaks, Another Iranian Is Silenced

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad i i

NPR's Steve Inskeep interviewed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday in New York. Tom Bullock/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Tom Bullock/NPR
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

NPR's Steve Inskeep interviewed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday in New York.

Tom Bullock/NPR

We waited for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in an airless hotel conference room. His entourage filtered in first, as many as 20 people who carried in five video cameras and other equipment. They placed an Iranian flag next to the president's chair, duct-taping it into precisely the desired position on the pole.

The mustard-colored curtains kept out the daylight, though not the sound of sirens as various presidential motorcades tangled traffic in New York. Ahmadinejad was one of many leaders visiting New York for the annual meeting at the United Nations General Assembly.

I had met the Iranian president once before — during the U.N. meeting a year ago. That was before June's disputed presidential election in Iran, when suspicions of fraud sent millions of his fellow citizens into the streets. It was before the repression of that dissent, and before Ahmadinejad renewed his questioning of the Holocaust, describing it as a "myth." Much had changed since our conversation in September 2008.

Ahmadinejad himself appeared unchanged. This time, as in our previous meeting, he walked into the room so quietly that it would have been possible to miss him in the crowd. He hesitated at the edge of the room, which did not fall particularly silent for him. Once the photographers were ready, he edged inside. He did not work the room in the manner of a Western politician.

After shaking hands with me, he sat down and sat still, hands folded, scarcely moving during our 40-minute talk. He spoke quietly, even gently. He looked straight ahead, expressionless except for the occasional broad smile.

Ours was one of several interviews Ahmadinejad gave this week. You can say this much for the president of Iran: He is not afraid to sit for a lot of hard questions. Few world leaders would sit for so many tough interviews.

NPR listeners will make up their own minds about his answers. Days after calling the Holocaust a "myth," he told us it was an actual "historical event," but then shifted yet again to question it. Days after saying he was proud to anger the West over the Holocaust, he told us he had "no opinion about what people and others think of me." He clarified or perhaps revised previous statements about torture in Iranian prisons.

His efforts to explain his point of view made me think of another man who tried to explain Iran, a man whose name came up during our interview.

Bijan Khajehpour i i

Bijan Khajehpour, chairman and co-founder of the Tehran-based Atieh Group of companies, was arrested June 27, 2009. He is being tried on charges of participating in a foreign-inspired plot against Iran. Andy Wong/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Andy Wong/AP
Bijan Khajehpour

Bijan Khajehpour, chairman and co-founder of the Tehran-based Atieh Group of companies, was arrested June 27, 2009. He is being tried on charges of participating in a foreign-inspired plot against Iran.

Andy Wong/AP

Bijan Khajehpour is an Iranian businessman whom I met in Tehran last January. This photograph shows him as I met him early this year, a clean-shaven man whose thinning hair is scattered in the careless manner of the absent-minded intellectual. He's looking at the camera through rimless glasses, his mouth starting to bend as if breaking into a smile.

Like many Iranians, Khajehpour left his country and studied abroad after Iran's Islamic revolution. Unlike millions of Iranians who made new lives abroad, he chose to return to his country. He became a business consultant, working with foreign firms who wanted to do business in Iran. He also met journalists like me, and offered us a window into the Iranian point of view.

It was an optimistic view. "I see the Islamic Republic of Iran as a human being that was born in 1979," he said. "And it was very naughty as a child, made a lot of mistakes in its first decade of life. Today, it's 30 years old and settling down. It's getting married and, you know, finding a house."

That was before the election. After the vote, authorities arrested him. He was one of 100 people put on trial en masse on charges of taking part in a foreign-inspired plot against Iran. A number of Iranians, including a former president, called the trial a sham.

This photograph shows Khajehpour as he was last seen in a Tehran courtroom after several weeks in confinement. He's sitting on the crowded defendants' bench, wearing blue prison pajamas. He has lost a lot of weight and has grown a grizzled beard. His eyes have sunk into his head, though the eyes are still alive. He's looking intently at another defendant on the bench beside him, placing a hand on the man's forearm while listening to whatever remark the man is making. Again, Khajehpour's mouth has gone crooked, as if about to break into a smile.

On Thursday, I asked President Ahmadinejad about Khajehpour. The president said nothing specific but promised to inquire about him.

The enforced silence of men like Khajehpour makes a powerful statement about Iran's government. It's a statement Ahmadinejad must contend with as he defends Iran before the world.

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