Reporter's Notebook: Invite To Iran

This reporter's notebook was written by CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer

The message sounded improbable – that if we flew into Teheran in time to attend President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's press conference on Monday, we would be issued visas at the airport. Or, more precisely, it sounded too good to be true.

Normally, getting an foreign journalist's visa for Iran is a Byzantine blend of negotiation, wheedling, threat, luck, politics and persistence – it is never, ever instant.

And sure enough, when we trudged off the redeye London to Teheran flight at 7 in the morning we ran into smiling — but unyielding — Iranian officialdom. Apparently, the necessary visa permissions had not been faxed. The men from the ministry were not yet at work. Our suitcases, unfortunately, would have to go straight back onto the London-bound plane, and so would we. But just as we were fishing around for our return tickets there was a sudden, crucial alignment of bureaucrats — and the visas, like magic, appeared.

But why?

The answer came striding onto the podium in the presidential compound late on Monday afternoon. A smiling President Ahmadinejad, looking fit, jovial and on top of the world.

Speaking without notes for close to two hours, he covered a vast number of subjects — from Iran's inflation rate to its controversial nuclear program.

The man who has been demonized in the West as an anti-Semitic, fundamentalist populist was on a charm offensive.

At times it was neither charming nor convincing. Ahmadinejad's economic theories were a little shaky. He returned to one of his favorite themes, the Holocaust, saying Germans must be tired of hearing that their forefathers were murderers. He also said Iran wouldn't help secure its border with Iraq because America, as the occupier on the other side, should do it. And he characterized his country as a peaceful place that only wanted to see other nations happy.

However, on one point he was very convincing. The United Nations Security Council meets this coming Friday to discuss Iran's nuclear program, and it's determination to produce enriched uranium. As punishment, the Security Council could recommend sanctions.

"But sanctions," said Ahmadinedjad, "would hurt those who impose them more than us." He's talking about oil prices. Any more political uncertainty — and that certainly includes sanctions against the world's fourth largest producer — could drive oil prices even higher than they are.

For Europe, America and China that spells real hardship. For Iran, it spells billions and billions of dollars in windfall profits.

In this latest round of international brinksmanship, Iran is holding very high cards.

It's a message Ahmadinejad wants the world to hear — badly enough to give out a few, tactical, instant visas.

By Elizabeth Palmer