Iran's leader put on the defensive

Local reporters challenge him on economy, treatment of press

August 30, 2006|By New York Times News Service

TEHRAN, Iran -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meant to use yesterday to focus attention on his challenge to the president of the United States: a face-off in a live televised debate.

But at a freewheeling two-hour news conference, Ahmadinejad also found himself challenged by local reporters who questioned the government's economic program and its tolerance of a critical press.

The marathon question-and-answer session offered a window onto one of the many contradictions of Iranian politics and governance: Even as the government grows more authoritarian, it is openly criticized and challenged on its performance.

This was Ahmadinejad's fourth news conference since taking office a year ago, and it came three days before a deadline set by the U.N. Security Council for Iran to suspend its enrichment of uranium.

The president used the opportunity to continue Iran's defiant posture toward the West. He made it clear that Iran would not meet the deadline and would risk sanctions.

"I announce that I am fully prepared to debate world and international issues with George Bush in a televised debate," he said in his prepared remarks. "Of course, only under the conditions that this debate is broadcast live and without censors, especially for the nation of U.S."

Although the White House immediately dismissed the challenge as a diversion, Ahmadinejad's remarks appeared intended to further three objectives: to position Iran as taking the moral high ground by making the United States look like the party unwilling to talk; to drive a wedge between the United States and Britain on one side and France and Germany on the other; and to reiterate Iran's determined refusal to give up enrichment.

"Peaceful nuclear energy is the right of the Iranian nation," he said, repeating what has become a mantra of his administration. "The Iranian nation has chosen that based upon international regulations, it wants to use it and no one can stop it."

The news conference veered off into an unruly question-and-answer session, with reporters praising the president, questioning him and some jumping from their seats demanding that their questions be taken.

Ahmadinejad found himself challenged on several issues of local importance, most focusing on the economy or on efforts to silence criticism of his government in the press.

One reporter said the government's decision to spend billions of dollars to subsidize gasoline amounted to welfare for the rich, an assertion the president disputed. Another said that although the president claimed to support the press, his spokesman sought to have the judiciary investigate critical reporters.

The reporter also said the president's interior minister had denied permits to 14 groups wanting to hold demonstrations.

The president responded quickly, dismissing the complaints, and tried to move on. But the challenges kept coming -- not one after the other, but more consistently as the confidence in the room seemed to grow.

"Food is very expensive to buy," said Nasser Alaghbandan, a reporter with the Tehran daily Jam-e-Jam, adding that whenever anyone asked the government spokesman about that issue, he responded by citing government sticker prices, not actual prices.

At first Ahmadinejad responded with a quip, saying maybe the reporter should go shopping at the same store as his spokesman. He eventually said the rate of inflation was lower since he took office but that more needed to be done to bring down some specific costs, especially housing.

As the news conference demonstrated, Iran's leadership faces two primary challenges simultaneously, its nuclear program and its economy. On the nuclear front, the president was resolute. On the economy, the issue that was the core of his campaign, he cited some accomplishments but asked for patience and more time.

"I did not expect in 10, 11, 12 months, I did not expect the economic programs of the government would be tangible everywhere," he said, adding that they had been felt by some people.

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