NEW YORK (AP) – Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended Holocaust deniers and raised questions about who carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in a tense showdown at Columbia University, where the school’s leader introduced the visitor by calling him a “petty and cruel dictator.”
Ahmadinejad, appearing shaken by what he called “insults” from his host, sought to portray himself Monday as an intellectual and argued that his regime had respect for reason and science. But the former engineering professor soon found himself drawn into the type of rhetoric that has alienated American audiences in the past. He provoked derisive laughter by responding to a question about Iran’s execution of homosexuals by saying: “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country … I don’t know who’s told you that we have this.”
At times, however, he drew audience applause, such as when he bemoaned the plight of the Palestinians. But his first stab was at Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, who said in his introduction of hmadinejad: “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”
Ahmadinejad said Bollinger’s opening was “an insult to information and the knowledge of the audience here.” “There were insults and claims that were incorrect, regretfully,” Ahmadinejad added, accusing Bollinger of falling under the influence of the hostile U.S. press and politicians.
Appearing agitated at times, Iran’s president often declined to offer the simple answers the audience sought, responding instead with his own questions or long discursions about history and justice.
Bollinger opened by aggressively taking on Ahmadinejad’s past statements about the Holocaust. “In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as the fabricated legend,” he said. “One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers.” Bollinger said that might fool the illiterate and ignorant. “When you come to a place like this, it makes you simply ridiculous. The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history,” he said. Ahmadinejad denied he had questioned the existence of the Holocaust. “Granted this happened, what does it have to do with the Palestinian people?” he said. But Ahmadinejad went on to say that he was defending the rights of European scholars, an apparent reference to a small number who have been prosecuted under national laws for denying or minimizing the Holocaust. “There’s nothing known as absolute,” he said. Asked why he had asked to visit the World Trade Center site, a request denied by New York authorities, Ahmadinejad said he wanted to express sympathy for the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. Then he appeared to question whether al-Qaeda was responsible, saying more research was needed. “If the root causes of 9/11 are examined properly, why it happened, what caused it, what were the conditions that led to it, who truly was involved, who was really involved, and put it all together to understand how to prevent the crisis in Iraq, fix the problem in Afghanistan and Iraq combined,” Ahmadinejad said.
Bollinger drew strong criticism for inviting Ahmadinejad to Columbia and had promised tough questions in his introduction. But the stridency of his attack on the Iranian leader took many by surprise.
“You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated,” Bollinger told Ahmadinejad about the leader’s Holocaust denial. “Will you cease this outrage?” Bollinger’s introduction was “very harsh,” said Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University.
“Inviting him and then turning around and alienating and insulting an entire nation whose representative this man happens to be is simply inappropriate,” Dabashi said. In Iran, Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia could be seen on Arabic satellite channels and state television’s Arabic-language service, but it did not appear on channels that broadcast in Farsi, the language of Iran.
During his prepared remarks, the Iranian president did not address Bollinger’s accusations directly, instead launching into quotes with the Quran and criticism of the President George W. Bush administration and past American governments, from warrantless wiretapping to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. He said the Holocaust has been abused as a justification for Israeli mistreatment of the Palestinians. “Why is it that the Palestinian people are paying the price for an event they had nothing to do with?” Ahmadinejad asked. He closed his prepared remarks with a terse smile, to applause and boos, before taking questions from the audience.
Ahmadinejad claimed women have tremendous rights in Iran and insisted his country does not believe in nuclear weapons. Asked about his country’s nuclear intentions, he insisted the program is peaceful, legal and entirely within Iran’s rights, despite attempts by “monopolistic,” “selfish” powers to derail it. “How come is it that you have that right, and we can’t have it?” he added.
Bush said Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia “speaks volumes about, really, the greatness of America.” He told Fox News Channel that if Bollinger considered Ahmadinejad’s visit an educational experience for Columbia students, “I guess it’s OK with me.” But conservatives on Capitol Hill were critical. Senator Joseph Lieberman said he thought the invitation to Ahmadinejad was a mistake “because he comes literally with blood on his hands.”
Thousands of people jammed two street blocks across from the United Nations to protest Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly session. Organizers claimed a turnout of tens of thousands. Police did not immediately have a crowd estimate. The speakers, most of them politicians and officials from Jewish organizations, proclaimed their support for Israel and criticized the Iranian leader for his remarks questioning the Holocaust. “We’re here today to send a message that there is never a reason to give a hatemonger an open stage,” New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said.
Hundreds of protesters also assembled at Columbia. Dozens stood near the lecture hall where Ahmadinejad was scheduled to speak, linking arms and singing traditional Jewish folk songs about peace and brotherhood. A two-person band nearby played “You Are My Sunshine.”
Signs in the crowd displayed a range of messages, including one reading: “We refuse to choose between Islamic fundamentalism and American imperialism.”