City of Brass

Last night, Katie Couric interviewed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on CBS. I think this could have been a good thing, but ultimately was totally meaningless. Couric is not a seasoned interviewer like Barbara Walters, in terms of getting the “big fish”, and I think she knows this, and tried to overcompensate by challenging Ahmadinejad on the issues in a dramatic, but ultimately less informative, way. For example, she brandished a photo of the dead Iranian girl Neda, shot through the heart by a Basij thug, to try and evoke a reaction, but Ahmadinejad was prepared and had a photo of his own:

Couric: During and after the presidential election, Mr. President, thousands of opposition supporters and journalists were arrested, badly beaten and tortured. Arrested, badly beaten and tortured. One woman – 27 year old Neda as you know, was shot to death while protesting. Her death was captured on a cell phone camera. Here is a shot of that cell phone picture which I’m sure you’ve seen.

Admadinejad: Correct.

Couric: What would you say to her family?

Ahmadinejad: We are – very sorry that one of our fellow citizens has been killed. As a victim of an – agitation of circumstance. An agitation that was carried out with the support of some American politicians, the voice of America, and the BBC.

Couric: Do you really think so little of your citizens that they can be manipulated and brainwashed by Americans and the UK?

Ahmadinejad: No. That is not what I’m saying. But I do say that some agitations from outside were there. I mean, there are plenty of documents pointing to that. Regrettably, one of our citizens lost her life–

The president then produced a photograph of an Egyptian woman – Marwa el-Sherbini – who was brutally murdered inside a German courtroom while taking part in a trial over the right to wear a hijab – or headscarf. He suggested that the western media – who turned Neda into a martyr – ignored Marwa’s story.

Ahmadinejad: American politicians do not want American people to see what goes on around the world.

Couric was simply outmatched here. Given a chance to challenge Ahmadinejad on the existence and role of the Basij, on the fact of Iranian youth taking up such universal cause against him, of the rooftop azaans which imbued the protests with their own Islamic legitimacy, how other candidates like Karroubi were crushed even in their home districts, and on and on, she instead went for the emotional confrontation. Ahmadinejad’s response was essentially true; there was indeed no coverage of Marwa el Sherbini’s death by the mainstream media, only via blogs like Talk Islam and Religion Dispatches. The really disasteful thing about this was that both Couric and Ahmadinejad were invoking dead women to try and score cheap points against the other instead of making any meaningful comment about the political realities and environment that led to their deaths.

Likewise, Couric attempted to challenge Ahmadinejad on his Holocaust denialist statements, in the past and more recently. Here is the exchange, once again focusing on an emotional attack:

Couric: You have consistently denied the Holocaust happened. You have called it a lie. And I’m just curious, I have some photos – dead bodies from a German concentration camp taken by the associated press. Mr. President is this photo fabricated, is this photo a lie?

Ahmadinejad: There are many historical events, similar historical events. Why is this one in particular so important to you?

Couric: Because you’re denying it happened.

Ahmadinejad: But in World War II, 60 million people were killed. Why are we just focusing on this special group alone?

We’re sorry for all the 60 million people that lost their lives, equally. All of them were human beings. And it doesn’t matter whether they were Christians or Jews or Buddhists or Muslims. They were killed. So, we’re sorry for everyone.

The obvious follow-up – “so, Mr. President, do you acknowledge that among the 60 million people who died in World War II, 6 million Jews were also killed?” went unasked. Again, Ahmadinejad’s response – though an evasion – was essentially valid. In his earlier interview with the Associated Press, Ahmadinejad sounded a similar theme:

“With regards to the question of Jewish people and their sentiments I have to say that in our opinion their issue is different than the issue of Zionism. Zionism is a political party. But the Jewish people, like many other people, follow a divine prophet. I fundamentally raise two questions regarding the Holocaust, and I can ask them here again from you. I think that if you attempt to answer my question we might move a step forward in answering the question. The first question is that assuming the Holocaust did happen, where did it exactly happen and who were the perpetrators? The second question is how exactly does that connect to the Palestinian issue?”

When told the Holocaust was perpetrated in Europe by Adolf Hitler and a group of his compatriots:

“So I would like to know how then does that this relate to the Palestinians, and the Palestinian issue. If this indeed happened in Europe by the hands of European governments, why exactly should the Palestinian people pay for it?”

When asked if he agrees the Holocaust occurred:

“In my opinion it is not the first part of the question that matters but really the result of that question. The first half relates to history. The second part relates to contemporary world affairs. … In your opinion if something has occurred in Europe by the hands of European governments can we seek remedy for it in other lands and territories? Is it the Palestinian people that should be compensating for the act through becoming displaced and why? Or through the occupation of their lands, and why? Or through the mass murder of these people, and why? Through genocide of these people, and why? These are some clear-cut questions that we have too.

“We are opposed to the killing of people wherever. As a fundamental rule we are opposed to the killings that occurred during World War II, wherever. We know that over 60 million people were killed in the course of the Second World War. Each and every one of them were human beings. And their lives were, are respectful, no matter whether they are Muslims or Jews or Christians. Really, it doesn’t make a difference…”

“…From where I stand, I wasn’t there 60 years ago, we weren’t there, but we are here now and we can do something about it. We are alive now. And what we see are Palestinians being killed. So I think today it is our task to stop that. … If the Holocaust is being used as a pretext to kill the Palestinian people, then inevitably it’s also necessary to discuss the Holocaust….”

At least here he was indeed asked directly if the Holocaust occurred, and canny as he is, he didn’t deny it, but didn’t acknowledge it either. The problem here is that the Holocaust is not the real issue. The real issue is Iran’s nuclear ambitions and whether those are a threat to Israel. I humbly suggest that Ahmadinjad’s precious concern for the Palestinians is convenient to him; a serious inteviewer (of the type Ahmadinejad has yet to encounter) would have met his assertion that the Holocaust and the Palestinian struggle should be separate issues, agreed with him, and then pointed out that the Palestinian struggle and the Iranian regime’s regional ambitions are equally separate issues. By invoking Palestine – an Arab nationalist movement – Ahmadinejad is basically trying to change the subject away from the Iranian hegemonic agenda. He should have been challenged on that, and forced onto the record not just about whether he believes the Holocaust occurred but whether he believes that the Nation of Israel should be “forced into the sea” or “vanish from the pages of time” (depending on translation).

The only real value in an interview with Ahmadinejad – especially with the opportunity afforded by the United Nations, whose approval and legitimacy he needs on the world stage – would be if he can be asked direct questions about what he has allegedly said and followed up on what he actually thinks. This photo-gotcha stuff is a waste of time, though we couldn’t expect much else from Couric. As a result, Ahmadinejad was able to put a reasonable and critical face forward on American national TV – even though his actual audience was the global one.

Here is the video of the interview, courtesy of CBS – part 1:

and part 2:

Related: Discussion of the Ahmadinejad interview at Talk Islam.

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