President of Iran’s Visit to New York: One Speech for Iranian Ears Only

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the newly elected president of Iran, arrived in New York last Tuesday for the 60th-anniversary celebrations of the United Nations and wasted no time in giving the world a clear indication of where his government stood on a number of issues. But it was on Saturday, his last night in town, that he and his delegation really let loose.

That night, at a gala event at the midtown Hilton, the Iranian president and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Dr. Ali Larijani, spoke to an all-Iranian crowd. Away from the glare of the media for the first time, Dr. Larijani insisted in a menacing and supremely confident tone that not only would Iran never make concessions on the nuclear-fuel cycle, but that threats of an American invasion or use of force against Iran were at best ill-advised—especially considering Iran’s influence in Iraq.

It had been a whirlwind week for the Iranian government. Having been granted a last-minute visa by a reluctant U.S. government, Mr. Ahmadinejad swung into town on an aging Iran Air 747, along with a large entourage that also included his minister of foreign affairs. Mr. Ahmadinejad had a busy week of “getting to know” his various foreign counterparts—with the exception, of course, of his American counterpart. On Wednesday, the Iranian president gave an eagerly anticipated speech to the U.N., notable more for criticism of the United States (whose delegation, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, walked out as soon as he opened his mouth) than any indication of Iranian nuclear intentions. He promised at a press breakfast I attended the next day that his final speech would offer new proposals for restarting the stalemated negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.

The even more eagerly anticipated Saturday speech at the U.N. (again, the U.S. delegation walked out) did indeed offer proposals to end the deadlock, but they weren’t particularly new, and his defiant tone left American allies shaking their heads in discouragement.

That evening, however, the Iranians were in a triumphant mood and had planned an evening at the midtown Hilton, where 500 or 600 U.S.-based pro–Islamic Republic Iranians would be on hand to honor the president. (The media wasn’t invited, as it was intended for Iranians only, and no part of the evening was in English.) Yet another summer street fair had closed Sixth Avenue down for the day, and I had to walk a few blocks through the detritus of the festivities to get to the hotel, following a group of Iranian women marching uptown in their chadors and hijabs and heels, trying to keep up with husbands who walked a few paces ahead.

On the mezzanine level of the hotel and away from the bemused looks of the tourists in the lobby, security was tight: U.S. Secret Service agents with tell-tale curly wires in their ears, beefy security guards from Tehran with tell-tale stubble and ill-fitting suits, and NYPD shock troops lining the wall, machine guns at the ready. I stood in line to pass through a metal detector and then wandered over to one of the Islamic-friendly “bars”—a table with sodas and water and glasses of ice. The bartender gestured at the bottles and said, “Go ahead.” Perhaps he knew that his meager offerings were unlikely to result in a tip, so he wasn’t about to actually fill anyone’s glass.

I walked into the half-empty ballroom and sat at one of the big round tables, nursing my soda and wishing I’d brought a hip flask. A few seconds later, an Iranian official tapped my shoulder and took me by the hand, instructing me to follow him. We walked down a hallway lined with Secret Service agents and entered a smaller ballroom, where a select group of about 60 Iranians were taking turns asking the president questions. The questions and comments were mostly about Iranian exile concerns, everything from “It’s hard for us to explain the chants of ‘Death to America’” to “You have to encourage investment in Iran,” and Mr. Ahmadinejad dutifully took notes but didn’t respond directly.

Back in the now-crowded grand ballroom, a man took to the stage and launched into an extended, melodious recantation of verse from the Koran. It was quite beautiful, and it turned out to be the sole musical number of the evening. When it ended, the president, fresh from his prayers, walked to the podium to a loud chorus of salavaat (the blessing for the prophet Muhammad). After the obligatory “In the name of Allah,” etc., he delivered a bombastic speech extolling the Iranian nation. His view of the Iranian people—unparalleled on the planet in their greatness—drew great cheers from the audience, but he refrained from discussing the nuclear issue and instead invited Dr. Larijani to the microphone to explain Iran’s nuclear stance in detail.

Dr. Larijani, an elegant man in a well-tailored suit, began by saying that Iran would “never, ever” give up its right to peaceful nuclear energy. He compared Iran’s sovereignty over its nuclear-fuel cycle to Iran’s immensely popular nationalization of the oil industry in the last century—a clever analogy that drew thunderous applause from the crowd. Dr. Larijani also recounted that he had told Jack Straw, the British foreign minister, that Iranians still view Britain with deep suspicion because of the oil concession of a century ago, and had warned him that Britain “should not repeat the same mistake when it came to nuclear power.” He waited for the applause to die down before he moved on to address the possibility of being referred to the Security Council. Dr. Larijani said that even if a veto of a resolution by a friendly state (read: China or Russia) was possible, Iran would still rely on nothing in its nuclear negotiations: “nothing but the will of the Iranian people.” He beamed as the audience again applauded enthusiastically.

It occurred to me that Dr. Larijani knew that whatever he was saying this evening would land, translated by the C.I.A., on the desk of Condoleezza Rice the next morning, courtesy of a spy or two in the audience or a listening device in the room. The message was in crystal-clear Farsi: Iran was moving ahead with its nuclear plans, like it or not, go tell your masters.

At the end of his speech, his eyes scanned the room (was he looking for the spy?) before he made two direct references to the U.S.: first, that America would not and could not act militarily against Iran, as it is too busy with the messy “soup” it’s created in Iraq; and second, that the U.S. should know that the reason the Shiites of Iraq are tolerating, if not cooperating, with the occupiers is “because of Iran”—and only because of Iran. That was as close to “Bring it on” as it gets, and Dr. Larijani’s Cheshire-cat grin while basking in the applause was a telling sign of the confidence the Iranians felt at the end of their New York stay.

After his speech, people rushed to the buffet tables laden with kebabs and rice outside; inside the ballroom, President Ahmadinejad was making a valiant effort to visit every table before heading for the airport, but the crowd gathered around him prevented him from moving far. Despite repeated requests by the U.N. ambassador for people to take their seats, the Iranians somehow didn’t believe his promise that the president would actually say hello to each and every person present, and they ignored the ambassador’s pleas. Not long after, Mr. Ahmadinejad left New York for the long flight home, and the Iranians left for their own homes maybe a few blocks away—some perhaps a little envious that, unlike their president, they would wake up the next morning still in the land of the Great Satan.