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The Backstory: An Interview With The Iranian President

As the president of one of the countries that President Bush has identified as part of the axis of evil, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a world leader who garners a lot of attention and one who rarely gives interviews to Western media. He did grant an interview to Mike Wallace, which aired on "60 Minutes" Sunday, and again last night, uncut, on C-SPAN. (You can also watch the full interview here.) According to producer Bob Anderson, who produced the story for "60 Minutes," CBS News had been chasing an interview with the Iranian president for some time. It was CBS's "fixer," or liason, in Tehran, Sia Zand, who had been in touch with the Ahmadinejad administration with an ongoing request to interview the president. In July, the press office called and said the president would be interested in granting Wallace an interview. Although Anderson isn't entirely sure why Wallace got the interview, his best guess is that "we were probably helped by Mike's stature in Iran," given that Wallace had interviewed the Shah, the Ayatollah Khomeini and former President Hashemi Rafsanjani in the past.

Anderson, Wallace and associate producer Casey Morgan arrived early in the week of Aug. 1, expecting that the interview would take place later that week. On Thursday, word came from the press office that the interview would take place on Friday, so the crew brought their gear through security at the president's compound and stored it there until the interview. When Friday's interview fell through, Ahmadinejad's chief press advisor came to the hotel to speak with Wallace, and the interview was arranged for Saturday at 8 p.m. That interview was again cancelled -- Anderson suggests it probably had something to do with the news that broke that evening at around 6 p.m. – that the U.S. and France had drafted a Security Council resolution to end fighting in Lebanon.

By then, it looked like the interview might take place on Sunday, and in order to make air for "60 Minutes" that evening, Anderson explained, they would have had to book a live satellite feed through Iranian television so that the interview could be fed straight to New York, edited and broadcast that evening.

The window for a Sunday interview came and went, and they decided to attend the administration's weekly press conference on Monday, with a letter in hand reiterating their desire for an interview before leaving the country Tuesday. Wallace also spoke with the press officer personally following the conference. "The press people kept telling us that they were working on it," said Anderson.

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Finally that day, the interview was set for Tuesday at the presidential compound, in a large room where Ahmadinejad meets with foreign ambassadors. "Maybe it was because of the letter, or because Mike spoke with the press officer. I don't know what it was that finally got us in," said Anderson.

You can listen to a podcast of the "60 Minutes" cut of the interview here (Part I) and here (Part II.) You'll notice that Wallace mentions in the interview that the voice translating Ahmadinejad's responses is identified as his "personal interpreter." According to Anderson, presidents typically provide their own interpreters for interviews. "Afterwards, we bring in our own to make sure it's accurate," and then for editing purposes, another voice is used for the on-air voiceover. "In this case their interpreter was accurate and compelling in his own way," said Anderson. "So it was sort of a bonus to use him in the piece."

The opportunity to air the complete interview on C-SPAN was another bonus, according to Anderson. As C-SPAN noted when announcing the program, "according to CBS News, the request to air the entire interview on C-SPAN came directly from President Ahmadinejad."

"We've done this before [with C-SPAN]" said Anderson. Ahmadinejad's people requested that the entire interview be aired because "they view their president's time as valuable and they want it heard and seen by the maximum number of people," said Anderson. "They don't want to see anything wasted."

The opportunity to broadcast the entire interview is something that Anderson and his colleagues "take pride in," he said. "I think people will likely watch and say, 'Gee, they didn't distort what was said in the interview … it's a good microcosm of what the interview actually was.'" He added, "We see it as quite a glorious part of transparency."

As for the intense reaction to the story, much of it questioning whether CBS News should have interviewed Ahmadinejad at all, Anderson expected it. "Whenever you interview someone who's controversial, there are always those who think he shouldn't be interviewed," he said.

Interviewing Ahmadinejad, says Anderson, is "not an endorsement of his policies," he said, adding that "the tenor of Mike's questions probably indicated as much."

"It's an opportunity for the American people to hear his view of the world," said Anderson. "And the audience can take its own measure" of the Iranian president.

Ahmadinejad is "a very important man on the world stage," said Anderson, especially considering that President Bush has has continually identified Iran among supporters of terrorism, which, Anderson noted, the president did again during his comments at the State Department yesterday. As a journalist, says Anderson, he's always in favor of more information about such figures rather than less. "Knowing more about him and his views is worth it," he said. "And I think our viewers have the requisite intelligence to glean their own opinions from the information."

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