Sep 25, 2009

Mahmoud Takes Manhattan [Street Scene]

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to Midtown this week to tell the United Nations General Assembly about Iran's "peaceful nuclear program" and how much he hates Zionists. His presence caused clashes between protesters and alleged Iranian agents on 48th Street.

Ahmadinejad has been in hot water at home over his highly questionable victory in Iran's last Presidential election. A large group of his green garbed opposition gathered across the street from his room on the seventh floor of the Intercontinental hotel. The protesters taunted him with chants of "down with the dictator" in Farsi punctuated with shouts calling Ahmadinejad a liar, murderer, torturer, and fascist.

One police officer standing in front of the hotel told us there were at least four law enforcement agencies on hand to make sure the Iranian delegation and their opposition played nice including the NYPD, the FBI, and Diplomatic Security officers from the Department of State. Secret Servicemen manned baggage x-rays and metal detectors in front of the hotel.

Tight security kept the protesters from getting a glimpse of Ahmadinejad, but they claimed to have no trouble spotting his security detail and members of his delegation. Akash a 23 year-old who moved from Iran to Manhattan two years ago told us that, at one point in the evening, Ahmadinedjad's bodyguards "were behind the window capturing people's faces" with a videocamera. The protesters told us that they complained to police who stopped the filming with the help of FBI agents. Nearby cops wouldn't discuss Akash's story with us, but other demonstrators showed us photos of men filming from the window.

A little after 10pm, the NYPD began asking the crowd to disperse. Some stragglers began screaming at a pair of men with Ahmadinejad-style scruffy beards and khaki dress clothes who were walking out of the hotel lobby. After two days of staking out Ahmadinejad's hotel, they claimed to be able to recognize some of the members of Ahmadinejad's entourage. They chased the bearded pair towards Lexington Avenue yelling "these guys are the terrorists" and "you're anti-Iranian, you're an Arab-lover." The groups exchanged angry words in Farsi before going their separate ways.

We asked the bearded men if they were part of the Iranian delegation and whether or not they liked New York. One of them responded by saying "I don't speak."

A few minutes later, two other men who also looked very Ahmadinejadesque drew the attention of the crowd across the street. Protesters told us that Iranian secret police often dress like their leader. We tried to talk to these men as well, but they waved at us and continued toward Lexington Avenue under a rain of insults and shouts from the protesters.

Not all of the Iranians we met at the Intercontinental showed up to taunt Ahmadinejad and his crew. Kamran Khoshroui said he came from Los Angeles because he was "interested" in observing the protests. Koshroui, who supports "some" of the Iranian government's policies, thinks Ahmadinejad won the recent Iranian election "fair and square." He described the protestors as members of the Iranian diaspora and the "bourgeouis middle-class" in Tehran who "do not by any means reflect the majority of Iranians."

Just as we were about to leave for the night, a chubby mustachioed man wearing a dark suit and a General Assembly entry badge emerged from the hotel to derisive jeers from the protestors. We approached the man and identified ourselves as writers with Gawker. When we asked if he was with the Iranian delegation, he grabbed at our notepad, attempting to take it and rip it into pieces. A nearby police officer separated us and sent the man away. He walked into the night pointing at us and shouting "Go back to Tel Aviv! You would do well there!"

With reporting by Daniel Johnson-Kim

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