Every year, when the United Nations General Assembly meets in New York, and heads of state buzz around the city in black cars and helicopters, two things are certain: New Yorkers will grouse about street closings on the east side of midtown Manhattan as a consequence of heightened security; and world leaders will make their rounds among the major journalistic organizations in the nation’s media capital to get some face time in the news.
This week, TIME reporters and editors were fortunate to have exclusive interviews with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan (who will be TIME’s 10 Questions interviewee in next week’s edition), Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
On Thursday morning, the day after Gaddafi’s rambling, 90-minute diatribe in front of the GA, I accompanied two of TIME’s top editors to meet the man his handlers said was to be referred to as “brother leader.” That’s easier to say out loud than King of Kings, which is the former Libyan army officer’s latest self-proclaimed moniker. (I have long wondered why this man, who has been in power since a 1969 coup when he was an army captain, has remained a colonel and never promoted himself to general.)
His staff was curious about the video camera for a magazine interview, which is pretty common. People still don’t grasp that there is practically no such thing as a print-only publication anymore. Perceptions are slowly changing. There was a Libyan TV crew there as well, documenting the Brother Leader’s every meeting. So they allowed me to shoot — at least for a few minutes. Six minutes into the interview, one of brother-leader Gaddafi’s top handlers began pointing to his watch. A few minutes later, Gaddafi said, in English, “you must stop.” I stalled to try to have a conversation about continuing, but the handlers began unplugging the audio cables from my camera and pushing me away from the scene. The editors were allowed to continue their interview, and Gaddafi became more relaxed — now that the cameras were gone — and they chatted for a half-hour longer.
Later that afternoon, Kofi Annan was warm and gracious, and had come to our offices to do the 10 Questions interview in a three-camera shoot.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had his own three-camera shoot at hotel meeting on Friday morning. Iranian state-run TV was there and had set up lights and cameras for his audience with half a dozen editors and reporters from TIME as well as the managing editor of FORTUNE. I arrived and placed my camera at the end of one of two long tables toward which the president would face from the far end.
As you likely already know, Friday was an interesting day for Iran. As the meeting with TIME was happening, President Obama, along with his counterparts from France and the UK, announced the discovery of a secret nuclear enrichment facility about 100 miles from Tehran. TIME editor Rick Stengel asked Ahmadinejad to comment about Obama’s revelation, and the Iranian president seemed a bit surprised — and a little amused — at the news. As reported on TIME.com yesterday, he basically told Obama to back off. The details unfolded throughout the rest of the day — the U-S and its allies had known about the facility for quite some time; Obama’s team wanted to have solid confirmation of intelligence reports before going public; and Ahmadinejad continued to say it’s none of America’s business and Iran is cooperating with the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It makes for fascinating prologue to planned talks between diplomats from the U-S and Iran, that are set to begin next week.
Oh, and Ahmadinejad isn’t as short as I thought he was.