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July 02, 2005

The NY Times covers Iran

Whenever a murderer is arrested, you see and read about interviews with the neighbors of the murderer. In an amazing number of cases, the neighbors say they were surprised by the murderer's arrest, because he was such a quiet, polite person and never caused trouble. They are especially surprised when it turns out that the murderer kept body parts in his freezer.

The New York Times has a piece today on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the "president-elect" of Iran, the man many people think was a leading force behind the embassy takeover in Tehran in 1979 in which Americans were held hostage while Jimmy Carter dithered and Cyrus Vance resigned. The article, by Michael Slackman, reports that Ahmadinejad is "generally described as an ultra-conservative" -- you know, sort of like Tom DeLay -- but that in reality he's a swell guy.

Yet friends, supporters and neighbors here describe the diminutive, bearded man as humble and caring. Mr. Ahmadinejad has a small circle of aides, one that appears a bit overwhelmed by all the demands and preparations ahead. Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political science professor at Tehran University, said that he had known the president-elect since childhood and that Mr. Ahmadinejad was not involved with the student hostage takers. He said they grew up together in East Tehran, and Mr. Hadian-Jazy described his old classmate as among the brightest in the neighborhood.

He called Mr. Ahmadinejad "self-confident, committed and absolutely incorruptible." He said he is very religious, but modern in his thinking. If there is a negative quality, Mr. Hadian-Jazy said, it is that he is very set in his views, and can be hard to persuade otherwise.

"If you can force him to sit down and listen, he has the capability to understand," the professor said.
And it doesn't end with this attempt to humanize the man. The article keeps piling the stuff on top of that buried pony:
On Friday, the day of prayer and rest in most Muslim countries, some of Mr. Ahmadinejad's neighbors sat on a bench, talking about their favorite son. It is almost a rule that when someone is asked about Mr. Ahmadinejad, the first thing said is that he is a modest person who has never lost touch with his roots. Security is very tight in the neighborhood, and with soldiers and plainclothes agents around, the neighbors were afraid to give their names.

One older man, who said he had lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, said that every year for the Iranian New Year, Mr. Ahmadinejad invited the neighbors over for a celebration. He is described as a devout man who lives in a three-bedroom house with two sons and a daughter. His family has little furniture, they said, and has machine-made carpets, not the more expensive hand-woven ones commonly owned by the better-off.

One son is finishing high school, and the two other children are studying in the university, the neighbors said.

Since he became mayor of Tehran, the city has had a driver pick Mr. Ahmadinejad up for work every day. But on his days off, neighbors said, he still drives the same 1977 Peugeot, without air-conditioning, that is parked in the alleyway beside the house.

People are quick to offer stories about Mr. Ahmadinejad, almost as if he was a religious figure. They say, for example, that he always brought his own lunch to work because he did not want the city to have to pay for his meals.
Well, maybe the better analogy is to the western media's efforts to humanize Yuri Andropov, when he became the Soviet leader briefly back in the early 1980s. Andropov, you may recall reading, was very western. He wore business-style suits and liked classical music. And if you liked Andropov, you're sure to love Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After all, when asked point-blank about the hostage accusation, Ahmadinejad denied it. "It is not true," he said. "It is only rumors." Ah, yes, rumors like those about Jeffrey Dahmer.