Ahmadi-Nejad in New York

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This is the big week at the UN General Assembly. But it’s already clear who the star of the show will be – Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the president of Iran. Ahmadi-Nejad is often portrayed as a dangerous simpleton. But he has played the PR game with masterful precision, since his arrival in New York.

Today (it’s still Monday night in New York), he limbered up for his appearance at the UN General Assembly by talking to an audience at Columbia University, in upper Manhattan. He was greeted with screaming headlines. The New York Daily News splash was "The Evil Has Landed" – with a sub-title -"Hate spewing Iran prez speaks today at Columbia.". For good measure, the paper ran an editorial accusing Columbia of "Monstrous Idiocy". Perhaps intimidated by all this pre-publicity, Columbia’s president – Lee Bollinger, (a champagne socialist?) – spoke for 10 minutes before the Iranian president and accused him of being a "petty and cruel dictator." This played into Ahmadi-Nejad’s hands. He mildly rebuked his host for being discourteous – and smilingly dodged all difficult questions about Israel or the Holocaust. The only moment when he appeared genuinely ridiculous was when he denied the existence of homosexuality in Iran.

It also looks like Iran will be able to avoid tougher UN sanctions. Western diplomats are gloomy about the prospects of agreeing a new package. The Chinese, apparently, are being even tougher in their opposition to sanctions than the Russians – amidst muttering about substantial Chinese economic interests in Iran. The pro-sanctions crowd have also been undercut by the work of Mohamed El-Baradei, the UN’s nuclear inspector. He is now being quietly bad-mouthed by diplomats who reckon that his primary purpose is now to avoid war, rather than to give a tough and accurate appraisal of where Iran’s nuclear efforts are heading. But if nothing happens at the UN, it is assumed that the EU will push its own package of sanctions through.

Aside from the theatre of the leaders’ speeches, the three other big other issues at the UN this week will be Darfur, climate change and the Middle East. UN officials seem to be deeply frustrated by attempts to get peacekeepers deployed in Darfur – "two steps forward, two steps back" is how one described it. The whole of Monday was devoted to climate change. But the UN’s efforts are being slightly overshadowed by the fact that President Bush is staging his own global warming summit in Washington, later this week, with the inelegantly named "major emitters".

That leaves that famous graveyard of broken dreams – the Middle East peace process. One official I spoke to today, who had been at the Quartet meeting addressed by Tony Blair (remember him), pronounced herself very encouraged by the atmosphere. The official claimed that there was a real sense that progress is possible at the meeting planned for November. "The Bush administration really seems serious", was the verdict. That’s nice to hear. But somehow, I feel I’ve heard it all before.

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