It's become an annual guessing game, in the run up to the United Nations General Assembly opening debate each September: What antics will Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad engage in this time?
In years past, he has dined (if not wined) the media -- sending out invitations on thick creamy stationery, and then, in his role as the smirking face of the Tehran regime, world's leading sponsor ot terrorism, he has lectured his guests on Love and Justice. He has told Columbia University students there are no homosexuals in Iran (where the regime tries to bolster that lie by hanging them). He has felt himself surrounded by an apocalyptic green aura while speaking at the UN podium. He has told his audience that most folks believe the U.S. government was behind the Sept. 11 attacks on America. He has shared a hush-hush meal with Louis Farrakhan and the New Black Panthers.
And, while hosting a reception in New York in 2006, Ahmadinejad availed himself of his UN-sponsored access to New York to personally recruit for Iran the services of a software expert who was later caught and convicted in Philadelphia federal court of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
In all this, what largely escapes public notice -- as Ahmadinejad basks in his own escapades -- is the traveling circus he brings with him on his "diplomatic" travels: his entourage.
Ahmadinejad usually travels with a big entourage. Not that the exact size of his retinue tends to be publicly announced. But every so often, tid-bits about it turn up. When Roger Simon and I went to cover Ahmadinejad's speaking appearance at the Durban Review conference in Switzerland, in 2009, we discovered that Ahmadinejad and his traveling party were occupying 40 rooms of the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva. This became apparent because newly arriving guests -- myself among them -- had to wait to check in until Ahmadinejad had finished hosting a banquet for 500 of his closest friends in Switzerland, and he and his entourage had checked out.
Last year, when Ahmadinejad made an extra trip to New York to attend a UN conference on "nonproliferation," the Tehran regime at the last minute asked the U.S. State Department to issue visas for 81 people in his entourage. This came to light because State compliantly hustled to issue visas for 80 of these Iranians, and refused a visa to one. Iran's government then complained to the UN about the lone denial.
Who are these scores of people who travel with Ahmadinejad? What are they busy doing in such money-and-diplomacy centers as Geneva and New York, while Ahmadinejad yucks it up in the spotlight? For that matter, assuming that U.S. authorities keep a close watch on how these folks occupy themselves in New York, what does that kind of additional surveillance cost American taxpayers? On what missions have the many members of Ahmadinejad's retinue been dispatched by the Iranian government to busy themselves in New York while Ahmadinejad sups at Columbia University?
Some of this entourage may be for security -- but there's no need for that, and it's no excuse. The U.S. government ensures that Ahmadinejad, when he visits the U.S., enjoys far better security than do most U.S. legislators. The question remains: Who are these Iranians who make up the traveling court of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and how, exactly, do they spend their time while he busies himself with auras and media meals and visits to Columbia University? And why does the U.S. State Department dignify this entourage with any visas at all?