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Surreal drama at UN General Assembly

Opinion: Ahmadinejad, Gadhafi act out on world stage, while a journalist asks questions about Iran.

Protesters march against Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a demonstration near the U.N. in New York on Sept. 23, 2009. (Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations at dawn on the morning of the opening session of the General Assembly resembles a Hollywood disaster movie: the tense quiet over Manhattan ahead of an apocalyptic catastrophe or an alien assault.

Eerie calm prevailed for several blocks around the gigantic building looming over New York’s East River. Armed police, Secret Service officers and SWAT teams poised with assault rifles, manned roadblocks and checked the armored black SUVs cruising the restricted zone.

Inside the green tower of Babel was a hive of activity. Leaders arrived for the most important day in the annual schedule. Aides, translators, delegates and journalists rushed through the marble hallways.

Just past the columns of satellite trucks lined outside the building, U.N. correspondents previewed the controversies of the day: would Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad throw a gauntlet to the West? Would he "unintentionally" brush against U.S. President Barack Obama just as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had once lain in ambush for then Iranian President Mohammad Khatami? What fresh outrage would the theatrical Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi spring in his first appearance at the world’s podium?

We were here on the last leg of a documentary shoot that took us from Istanbul to Paris, London and then Washington in an effort to understand where Iran stood 100 days after the June presidential election tumbled the country into its current political crisis. For me, the journey had been longer: After being imprisoned in a jail cell in Tehran’s Evin Prison, I was now treading the halls of the U.N. to ask the Iranians some burning questions. For three weeks, I was held in an isolation cell after the disputed presidential elections, alongside dozens of Iranian colleagues branded as subversives by the regime for their reporting of events.

Now I had come to New York in the hope that I could set some tough questions for the Iranian president: If he had really won such an overwhelming majority, why had he cracked down so harshly on the demonstrators? Why was state-run television banned from mentioning the opposition candidates’ names? And where next for a government viewed by many inside Iran as illegitimate?

The U.N. accreditation process for journalists redefines bureaucracy. After a two-week screening, we were accepted. Turning up at 7 a.m., we were photographed, filed and issued with a building pass. After registering at a chaotic room called the Liaison Desk, we entered the dance for a fistful of colored papers, each allowing access to different areas.