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Mike Wallace Says Iranian President an 'Impressive Fellow'

Twenty-seven years after a chilling sit-down with Ayatollah Khomeini that was one of Mike Wallace's most memorable, the CBS newsman snagged an interview this week with current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran.

The 88-year-old Wallace had been pursuing the interview for so long that he had to be reminded by Ahmadinejad when he first asked for it.

A portion of Wallace's interview, conducted Tuesday at a crucial time in the Mideast with Israel fighting the Iran-backed Hezbollah, will be shown Thursday on the "CBS Evening News." A fuller report will air on Sunday's "60 Minutes."

In the interview, Ahmadinejad said of the Bush administration, "see how they talk down to my nation."

During the midst of the American hostage crisis in 1979, Wallace interviewed Iranian leader Khomeini, locking eyes with the cleric when he asked for a response to Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat calling Khomeini a lunatic.

Of Ahmadinejad, Wallace said, "He's an impressive fellow, this guy. He really is. He's obviously smart as hell."

Wallace said he was surprised to find that the Iranian president was still a college professor who taught a graduate-level course.

"You'll find him an interesting man," he said. "I expected more of a firebrand. I don't think he has the slightest doubt about how he feels ... about the American administration and the Zionist state. He comes across as more rational than I had expected."

Wallace said he and producers Bob Anderson and Casey Morgan had been seeking the interview for more than a year, since he sat next to Ahmadinejad at a United Nations breakfast and told the Iranian leader that he'd like to come to Iran to talk to him someday. Wallace admitted he had forgotten about that encounter until the Iranian president brought it up.

Summoned to Iran for the interview, Wallace and his team waited for nearly a week until he was brought in to speak to Ahmadinejad.

Tehran in August isn't Wallace's usual haunt; that's when you'll usually find him in Martha's Vineyard. It's also no way to spend retirement. CBS News announced in the spring that Wallace had retired as a regular "60 Minutes" correspondent, although he would still be available for special interviews.

Wallace said he nearly fell out of his chair when Ahmadinejad told him, "I hear this is your last interview."

Wallace said he replied: "What do you think? Is it a good idea to retire?"

He said the Iranian president told him it was important to keep doing interesting things. And Wallace is already thinking about his next story: he said he's trying for an interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.