Ahmadinejad's Day One in New York: A Hostile Reception, a Rambling Talk

Ariel Shaeban, an Iranian immigrant living in New York, protests Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia University.
Ariel Shaeban, an Iranian immigrant living in New York, protests Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia University. (By Jason Decrow -- Associated Press)
By Anthony Faiola and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 25, 2007

NEW YORK, Sept. 24 -- Greeted by large protests and jabs from local politicians and U.S. presidential candidates, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced a public skewering Monday at the first stop of his three-day trip here: As he prepared to deliver a speech at Columbia University, the university's president, Lee Bollinger, introduced the Iranian leader as a man who appeared to lack "intellectual courage," had a "fanatical mind-set" and may be "astonishingly undereducated."

"Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," Bollinger told Ahmadinejad from a lectern across the stage. He said that Ahmadinejad's past denials of the Holocaust might fool "the illiterate and ignorant" but that "when you come to a place like this, it makes you quite simply ridiculous."

A leader known to live largely protected from criticism at home, Ahmadinejad appeared shocked and insulted. He chastised Bollinger for judging his speech before it had even begun and suggested that such a move was unforgivable in a university setting.

Ahmadinejad, who in the past has argued that Israel should be "wiped off the map," repeated his assertions that the Holocaust should be researched "from different perspectives" and said Palestinians should not be "paying the price for an event they had nothing to do with." The Iranian leader also blasted U.S. sanctions against his country, insisted on Iran's right to nuclear development and declared his willingness to "dialogue" with U.S. leaders.

The war of words at Columbia was, in many ways, a herald of Ahmadinejad's unwelcome reception in New York, a city both scarred by terrorism and at the heart of American Judaism. The controversy began even before the Iranian leader landed Sunday night for a three-day trip on the occasion of the U.N. General Assembly, which Ahmadinejad will address Tuesday afternoon.

As it does for many a dignitary, New York, home to the United Nations, provided extra security for Ahmadinejad along with the U.S. Secret Service and Iranian security. But luminaries, leaders and the local media made it abundantly clear that much of New York is holding its nose while Ahmadinejad is in town.

"The Evil Has Landed," declared the New York Daily News alongside a mug-shot-like photo of Ahmadinejad. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) minced no words. "I happen to find his views disgusting, disgraceful, abhorrent," he told reporters Monday.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) joined a host of presidential candidates in blasting Ahmadinejad, and Columbia for even asking him to speak. "If I were the president of a university, I would not have invited him," Clinton told CNN. "He's a Holocaust denier."

Several Jewish schools in the New York area gave their students a half-day off so they could attend a large anti-Ahmadinejad rally near the United Nations. Thousands turned out, including some family members of Sept. 11 victims, outraged that Ahmadinejad had requested to lay a wreath at Ground Zero. The much-publicized request was denied by the New York Police Department, which publicly argued that the site -- now in the midst of construction -- is simply too dangerous for the Iranian leader.

"The nerve of that guy," said Mark Sohn, 82, a Holocaust survivor and Queens resident who held a sign with Ahmadinejad's face and the words "Hitler Lives." "What's he think he's doing here? Huh? In New York? I don't think so. Makes me sick."

But the appearance at Columbia proved to be the tense focus of Ahmadinejad's day. The university had come under extraordinary criticism for giving the Iranian leader a public platform, with state and city lawmakers threatening to strip the school of government funds if it did not rescind the invitation. Rather than bow to pressure, Bollinger -- who is also a director of The Washington Post Co. and a noted legal scholar on free speech and affirmative action -- pressed on with the forum, citing the importance of free speech.

But Bollinger went on to condemn what he said is the Ahmadinejad government's expanding crackdown on dissent. He gave a rundown of Iran's human rights abuses, including the 210 executions so far this year and its harsh treatment of women, gays, the news media, academics and religious minorities. Ahmadinejad's past remarks questioning the Holocaust were "absurd comments" that defy historical truths, Bollinger said.

Taken aback, Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith, replied that in Iran tradition dictates that when "a person invites us as a . . . speaker, we actually respect our students and the professors by allowing them to make their own judgment, and we don't think it's necessary before the speech is even given to come in."

Ahmadinejad went on to enrage many by once again questioning the Holocaust. He also denounced the punishment in Europe of "a number of academics" who were "questioning certain aspects of it."

When asked about women's rights, Ahmadinejad said that women in his country are "more respected than men." But he really brought down the house when responding to a question about repression against gays in Iran.

"In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country," he said. Above the guffaws from the crowd, he continued: "In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it."

In his meandering remarks, Ahmadinejad ranged from religious history -- covering the great prophets of all three major monotheistic religions -- to the value of science and research. But he also took swipes of his own, charging that "bullying powers" use academics for political interests, even to strip other nations of their wealth -- an indirect reference to what Tehran believes are U.S. and European efforts to foster a "soft" revolution in Iran and block modern development through access to nuclear energy.

On Monday, California businessman Ali Shakeri, who had been imprisoned in Iran since May 8, was released from Evin Prison, according to family members. Shakeri was the last of four Americans imprisoned or detained in Iran this year -- events that have heightened U.S.-Iranian tensions. The whereabouts of former FBI agent Robert A. Levinson, who disappeared on Iran's Kish Island on March 8, remain unknown.

The Columbia speech was one of several public and private appearances Ahmadinejad has scheduled for his trip. Before the remarks, he taped an interview for the "Charlie Rose" show and spoke by videoconference with the National Press Club in Washington. After addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday he will speak at a news conference, followed by an evening gathering with U.S. intellectuals.

But on Monday, another drama unfolded outside Columbia's gates, where thousands of protesters gathered. There were Iranian exiles who oppose the current regime, Israelis who oppose Iran and Jews who oppose Ahmadinejad's statements about the Holocaust. One woman held a sign that read "Honk if you hate terrorists."

And there were those who oppose Ahmadinejad but supported his right to speak.

"Let him speak -- let him open his mouth," said Pearl Atkins, 74, a Manhattan resident who lost relatives in the Holocaust. "This is America; people get their say here, not like in Iran. He only makes himself sound more stupid with every word anyway."

Staff writer Robin Shulman contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company