Surreal drama at UN General Assembly

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.

As one journalist put it, “the places where we’re allowed to be are not the places where we should be.” Others had given up and fatalistically filmed the screens broadcasting speeches from inside the main hall.

Two Iranian journalists freshly arrived from Tehran struggled to fill in accreditation forms. One of them spoke fluent English but his alert, 50-something colleague with a military posture did not understand a word.

“Don’t help them,” the Chinese-American lady handling accreditations advised sotto voce. “Be politically correct.”

Later, we heard from an Iranian journalist that U.N. security had been instructed to tail any Persian speakers.

If we’d thought that our sheafs of paper and plastic passes meant we could move around at will, we were seriously misled. Escorts shepherded cameramen, correspondents and photographers around a warren of exposed concrete back-passages and hallways covered in stained, frayed carpet, ushering them into small rooms or overcrowded galleries that looked over the assembly itself.

After the claustrophobia of passing through checkpoints and past armed guards, the first glimpse of the cavernous assembly hall was breathtaking. Stacked in double-tiered rows fanning out from the speaker’s podium, hundreds of diplomats and heads of state sat hushed as U.S. President Obama addressed the U.N. for the first time.

But Obama’s star presence did not carry the day. With Third World authoritarian populists like Iran’s Ahmadinejad and Libya’s Ghadafi in attendance, this year was billed as the most controversial inaugural session ever. From where I half-hanged out of a press box, I could see Gadhafi immediately below me, swathed in desert robes upon which a badge of the African continent (his latest revolutionary cause) was pinned. He listened distractedly to simultaneous translation and occasionally dabbed at his crevassed face with a scarlet handkerchief. Across the hall, Iran’s monolingual president sat erectly at his seat, watching uncomprehendingly the man who had offered him a hand for an “unclenched fist.” It was a perfect case of the man who thinks he knows it all. “Just being in the room and hearing an American president speak was a symbolic move for Ahmadinejad since American delegations during the Bush years always made a point of walking out when Iran’s turn came round,” said Hooman Majd, the author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ." The Americans were not to return the gesture. By the time Ahmadinejad climbed the podium in the evening, a gapingly empty U.S. seat greeted the Iranian’s defiant rhetoric. The U.K., Canada and Israel also snubbed the diminutive dictator.

As night fell and we left the building, television spotlights illuminated network correspondents doing stand-ups to a backdrop of limousines sweeping out. A little further along, hundreds of demonstrators waved Shah-era flags and — in a grisly piece of street theater involving whip-snapping revolutionary guardsmen and giggling Shiite mullahs — re-enacted the killing of Iranian demonstrator Neda Agha Soltan. Thousands of Iran's diaspora opposition descended on the U.N. from around the U.S. and Canada (some even flying out from Iran). The chanting crowd formed an angry sea of protest but well beyond the hearing of the Iranian VIPs.

After all the drama of Obama’s outreach and Ahmadinejad’s contested re-election, it was business as usual at the U.N.: a confrontational speech, a U.S. walkout and exile protests outside.

Plus ca change …