A Souvenir From the Big Apple for the Supreme Leader

United Nations -- President Ahmadinejad is a better speaker and can even be charming when he speaks at small gatherings. But the Iranian president's speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday was quite different from those he'd made at private dinners and gatherings throughout much of this week. On Wednesday, Mr. Ahmadinejad told attendees at a small reception organized by a think-tank in New York emphasized that Iran may soon come back to the negotiation table, and reiterated that he is the primary decision-maker on Iran's nuclear program.

"Dialogue started (between Iran and the US) and then discontinued in Iraq. If those kinds of talks could be continued, many, many matters would be solved. The US government disconnected the talk," he said Wednesday to a small group of American intellectuals and scholars at the think-tank.

Mr. Ahmadinejad was widely expected to deliver another one of his controversial speeches to the General Assembly on Thursday, and as expected, his words were not much different from his other public talks. His claim about the possibility of US involvement in the September 11th attacks was one he had previously made. What was new this time around was his theory that the US could have played a role in the terrorist attacks on its own soil just "to protect Zionism."

But the Iranian president's public speeches during his visit to the UN for the 65th session of the General Assembly were quite different from those speeches he delivered at private gatherings, such as the reception at the think-tank on Wednesday. Such "duplicitous" behavior on the part of President Ahmadinejad is confusing for those seeking to understand what exactly he is trying to accomplish by making such public statements that are so vastly different from those he makes behind the scenes at private gatherings.

In public, President Ahmadinejad appears to become a different person when asked to express his opinion about US-Iran relations and the nuclear issue. After six years in power, journalists have come to learn that they can't directly get any information out of him at a press conference or interview. Playing with words and avoiding direct answers have become a part of the Iranian president's personality. But with a different, smaller audience, Mr. Ahmadinejad appears to adopt a different approach.

From what we learned during his one week stay in New York City, Iran's president is interested in having a dialogue with the European Union and the US over the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. That Mr. Ahmadinejad is confident enough to discuss many matters that not too long ago were exclusively discussed and reviewed by those in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's club is surprising. But when asked at the reception on Wednesday whether decisions on Iran's nuclear program were made by others or by the president, he replied that though there are "experts" who advise on nuclear policy, the decision-making process is clear and: "I have said over and over that I am responsible for nuclear policy," he said.

President Ahmadinejad's public speeches are the kinds of speeches expected by the supreme leader back in Tehran, who can only access knowledge about the world though the television screen and from what his close aids tell him. Ayatollah Khamenei can trace the president's actions when Mr. Ahmadinejad addresses the General Assembly or speaks at a public event, and appears on important television shows such as Larry King and Charlie Rose. Making the supreme leader and his circle happy serves Mr. Ahmadinejad's interests more than if he publicly deviates from the leadership's stance and states what he really wants.

But by giving a speech that started a new controversy over the September 11th terrorist attacks one day before his departure instead of leaving the General Assembly with a message of love and peace message from all Iranians, Mr. Ahmadinejad wasted a valuable opportunity.

One Iranian official who asked to remain anonymous said the Iranian president didn't attend the US speeches because they attended them last year and the US president didn't reciprocate by staying in the room during the Iranian president's speech. "It is an insult if we did that again, and then saw that President Obama didn't show up at our president's speech in the afternoon," said the source.

As it stands, it is very unclear to what degree and to what extent President Obama and President Ahmadinejad may one day meet.

During his one week stay in New York, Mr. Ahmadinejad made himself so available and accessible to American media and different American groups, and used any available opportunity to try and alter the harsh picture that so many Americans and much of the international community has of him and his government's brutal crackdown against the Iranian public. Accepting many visitors from all strata of American society, from peace activists to intellectuals and academic figures, made clear his intention that the time for renewed US-Iran talks may be very soon. Even President Barack Obama appeared to have a conciliatory tone towards Iran in his speech to the General Assembly earlier Thursday before Ahmadinejad took to the podium.

For now, Iran's president will have succeeded in leaving New York with the memory of his last General Assembly speech-- a souvenir from the Big Apple that the supreme leader will undoubtedly enjoy.

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