In the era before cable and satellite television, the news programs on America's three commercial broadcast networks carried a great deal more influence than today. Perhaps that is now beginning to change. Veteran journalist Diane Sawyer marked her 64th birthday on Tuesday by debuting as anchor of the still popular ABC TV evening newscast. Her first coup - an interview conducted in Copenhagen on Friday with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Trying to sway American public opinion is plainly important to him. Luckily, he's no master of public relations. Ahmadinejad gets bogged down in polemic and circumlocution when a straight answer would serve him better. On sanctions - he said bring it on; I don't like being threatened while simultaneously being invited to negotiate. He rejected a Times of London report, datelined Washington, which claimed Iran is testing a nuclear triggering device as "fundamentally not true." The story was based on "fabricated" papers "disseminated by the American government." Ahmadinejad's message is that there is no Iranian bomb in the works. He told a home audience that if there was one he'd be "brave enough" to say so. And when Sawyer asked point-blank: "Will you say to the American people, tonight, that Iran will never weaponize nuclear material?" Ahmadinejad replied: "We have got a saying Iran which says 'how many times shall I repeat the same thing?' You should say something only once. We have said once that we don't want nuclear bomb. We don't accept it." Reassured? Neither are we. Was he concerned that his bellicosity, his flouting of Security Council resolutions and International Atomic Energy Agency rebukes might prompt some country - or countries - to launch a military strike? Ahmadinejad put on his best Dirty Harry expression: "We don't welcome confrontation, but we don't surrender to bullying either." Asked about three youthful American adventurers who foolishly strayed into the Islamic Republic from the Kurdish region of Iraq and have been imprisoned, Ahmadinejad insinuated they were spies. When Sawyer said their parents were desperate to contact them, Ahmadinejad offered this non-sequitur: There are 3.5 million prisoners in America. BACK IN Iran, the death, at 87, of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri - a founding father of the Islamic Republic, who crafted its judiciary system - has galvanized dissident politicians and clerics. Montazeri's funeral in Qom on Monday brought out tens of thousands of frenzied mourners chanting "God is Great!" When a tepid letter of condolence from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was read, the crowd roared: "Dictator, this is your last message: The people of Iran are rising!" May it be so. Let's not fool ourselves; the Iranian opposition is not Western-oriented and certainly not agnostic on Israel. Still, it is significant that former presidential hopefuls Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, along with former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani, have all latched onto Montazeri as a symbol. Long ago, the revered cleric broke with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini over the regime's murderous brutality. Recently, Montazeri challenged a basic Iranian myth by calling the 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Teheran "mistaken." Significantly, he issued a fatwa against investing in a nuclear bomb. After the contested elections in June, he called for the release of all political prisoners. He courageously criticized the post-election executions carried out by the regime as an affront to Islam. Unfortunately, for those of us who'd like to see regime change, the opposition is not yet a cohesive movement and has no concrete strategy. Its limited goals are to overturn the rigged elections and increase freedom of expression. MEANWHILE, Western leaders are arriving, glacially, at the realization that Iran's duplicitous determination to manufacture nuclear weapons - and perfect the means to deliver them - is not going to be reversed by diplomacy. The Chinese and Russians are likely to enfeeble any effort at a robust sanctions regime; Germany and Italy will find it hard to reduce their dependency on Iranian lucre. But there is something that's doable right now and doesn't require financial sacrifice or very much diplomatic daring: To signal support for the Iranian opposition, countries which value liberty should opt to indefinitely extend the vacations of their ambassadors now on home-leave for the Christmas and New Year holidays. Is that too much to ask in honor of Montazeri's memory?