Failures in Journalism: Ahmadinejad's Visit and Negotiating with Iran

by Rollo Romig


This time of year, when the air grows crisp and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes his annual visit to Manhattan to address the United Nations General Assembly, I often look back on my own encounter with the Iranian President. It was 2007, and I was thinking of writing a story about Neturei Karta, a tiny sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews known for their vehement anti-Zionism. (One of their leaders served as Yassir Arafat’s Minister for Jewish Affairs; you may remember them as the rabbis who attended Iran’s “International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust” in 2006.) One day that September, I called my main contact, Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, to see what they were up to.

“Tomorrow’s a very busy day,” Weiss said. “We’ve got a demonstration at the UN, and another demonstration at Columbia University. We haven’t even finished making our signs. And then the traffic….”

He sounded like he was getting ready for the synagogue bake sale instead of an angry rally where he and his fellows would be screamed at, spat upon, and surrounded by a moat of cops for their own protection. If nothing else, their tolerance for socially awkward situations was impressive. I told him I’d see him across the barricades in the morrow. I was about to say goodbye when the rabbi remembered something.

“Oh! And we also have a private audience with the president of Iran. You’re welcome to come along,” he said. “It would probably be interesting for you.”

I agreed that that would probably be interesting.

So, early the next morning I showed up at the Intercontinental Hotel on 48th Street to meet Ahmadinejad. No one could enter the hotel without a room card or an invitation. The place was swarming with journalists trying to get a glimpse of the A-man, but only I and a few other reporters (mostly Italian TV) were ushered inside along with the delegation of twelve black-hatted Neturei Karta rabbis, one of whom was carrying a giant silver box containing an engraved fruit bowl for the Iranian President.

I was entirely without accreditation, so I was amazed to make it even that far. Security was endless-we were grilled by the hotel staff, the Secret Service, and finally, the Iranian delegation. But there I was on the third floor, just outside the conference room where the meeting would soon begin.

“This is exciting!” I thought. I exchanged grins with my colleagues from the press. Now we just had to pass one more search, a scan with a body wand, and we were in.

I had already emptied all the metal objects from my pockets and onto a table when a burly Secret Service guy came barreling down the hall. “We’ve got movement,” he said into his radio. The rabbis were all inside already. The rest of us were made to stand against the wall, execution-style. And then, surrounded by heavies and staffers, Ahmadinejad swept past us and into the conference room. He looked smug. I can confirm that he is short.

Finally it was my turn to get wanded by security, the last step before this strange confab was completed with my presence. As the wand waved over me, beeping at my belt buckle, I was already rehearsing how I would tell this very anecdote. Then a stern Iranian man wearing stubble and a gray suit stepped forward.

“No,” he said.

No what?

“Not him,” he said, raising his hand. “This guy can’t come in.”

And that was it. I argued, of course, but he was unmovable, and there were no more rabbis around to vouch for me. A Secret Service officer stepped in. “Sir, they don’t want you inside. Please take the next elevator down to the lobby.”

Downstairs, I kicked around the lobby, waiting for the meeting to adjourn so I could get a lame recap. I would have called my editor, but I had no editor to call. I gazed into the canyon of my student debt.

Over by the reception desk, I spotted the stern Iranian man. We made hostile eye contact. He walked over. We squared off.

“Let me ask you something,” he said, frowning. “Not me as a representative of Iran, and you as a representative of America. Person to person.”

“O.K.,” I said.

“Why do you write bad things about people?”

What? “I didn’t write any bad things,” I said.

“No,” he insisted. “Why do you people at the New York Post write such bad things?”

“I’m not from the New York Post!” I said. I was probably yelling. (The Post headline the day before was “MADMAN A’JAD.”)

“You’re not?”

“No! I’m totally unaffiliated! I’m independent! Freelance! The rabbis invited me! I’m supposed to be in there!”

“Oh,” he said. He didn’t look stern anymore. He shrugged. “Sorry about that.”

And I believe that it is only in this spirit of open and honest exchange that our too-proud nations can avert a mutual calamity that is otherwise all but assured. Khuy Voyne!

Rollo Romig never wrote that story about Neturei Karta.