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9/11 comments weaken Ahmadinejad's charm offensive

The Iranian president fails to win over New Yorkers after his refusal to apologise for suggesting the US government was involved in the 9/11 attacks.

Iran's U.N. ambassador Mohammad Khazaei, left, listens as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, confers with an aide during a press conference in New York, Friday Sept. 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) *** Local Caption *** NYBM105_UN_Iran_Ahmadinejad.jpg
Iran's U.N. ambassador Mohammad Khazaei, left, listens as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, confers with an aide during a press conference in New York, Friday Sept. 24, 2010. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) *** Local Caption *** NYBM105_UN_Iran_Ahmadinejad.jpg

NEW YORK //New Yorkers were unlikely to be assuaged by the thank-you from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after they endured the now-familiar routine of offensive rhetoric, demonstrations and traffic gridlock during his annual trip to their city last week.

"I wish to thank the people of New York and the New York police who helped us to move around the city and did so much to ensure our safety and security," Mr Ahmadinejad said on Friday at a press conference. The day before, he talked about possible US government involvement in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in remarks called "offensive" and "hateful" by Barack Obama, the US president.

But in his other public appearances, the Iranian president steered away from controversial comments such as those made on previous visits. The possibility of renewed talks between the international community and Iran over its nuclear programme was also revived. His remarks in private meetings and one-on-one interviews were less bombastic, while his speech to the UN General Assembly with the comments about September 11 were perhaps uttered to counter rising conservative and clerical criticism at home.

But his comments and refusal to apologise the next day contrasted with his apparent charm offensive, at least compared with his previous trips. "The people of New York are kind," he said. "They are very good people and we care about them and we are trying to defend the rights of the American people so their money is not used in Iraq and Afghanistan and their children aren't sent to die." His rambling UN speech fulfilled the expectations of hundreds of opponents gathered outside the UN on Thursday, including exiled Iranians and pro-Israel supporters.

But he was called "gracious" by Sarah Shourd, the hiker recently released by Iran. She met the president in New York on Friday along with her mother and the mothers of her fiancé, Shane Bauer, and their friend, Josh Fattal, who are still being held in an Iranian prison. "The president was very gracious. He was happy to meet my mother and he asked her many questions about our family and grandchildren and we talked about my fiancé," Ms Shourd said. "He was very positive and for me it was a very human encounter, very personal." During his travels around the city, Mr Ahmadinejad was protected by a small army of US security personnel who worked with his own security detail.

Their total number rivalled Mr Obama's security team and included secret service agents, uniformed and undercover New York police officers, an ambulance, and a truck with electronic jammers that can prevent the detonation of a remote-controlled device, according to ABC News. Mr Ahmadinejad gave several interviews to US journalists, including Larry King on CNN and Christiane Amanpour on ABC News. He also had a closed, off-camera breakfast with two dozen US newspaper editors and reporters.

But he denied he only gave "corporate" media interviews when a Lebanese journalist asked him on Friday why he did not speak with "mostazafin" reporters, a Quranic term for the oppressed. He said he was always asked the same questions in interviews with "corporate" journalists. "I tell the media organisations to stop pressuring reporters," he said. On Larry KingLive, he brought up the case of Helen Thomas, a veteran US reporter who resigned this year after she expressed anti-Israel views. "A reporter with a rich background was forced out of her work simply because she expressed an opinion," he said. "This would never happen in Iran."

Mr Ahmadinejad, who began a second presidential term after disputed elections last year, denied that offices belonging to Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, Iranian opposition leaders, were raided this month, according to a Wall Street Journal reporter who attended Tuesday's breakfast. Other themes raised by Mr Ahmadinejad included the plight of the Palestinians, the hypocrisy of anti-nuclear proliferation efforts, and he contrasted US aid to Israel with rising poverty levels in the United States.

After calling Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, a "skilled killer" on the Larry King show, he said: "There are 30, 40 million poor people in this country, about four million homeless people. Why should this money go to him? This is terrible." He also noted the international furore over an Iranian woman, whose execution by stoning for being an accomplice to her husband's murder has been suspended, while a Virginia woman was executed on Thursday for the contract killing of her husband and stepson.

"There has been a huge outcry over a woman being on trial in Iran for murder," Mr Ahmadinejad said on Friday. "But last night a woman was actually executed in the United States with a similar sentence. Now if a woman in the United States is executed, is it OK?"

sdevi@thenational.ae