Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Contoversy: New York and Columbia University

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will head into a storm of controversy when he arrives in the US on Sunday evening, with fiery protests expected to dog his every move in New York from the United Nations to Columbia University.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has meanwhile denied Mr Ahmadinejad’s request to lay a wreath at the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks owing to “logistical and security concerns”.

Despite the planned protests, the Iranian leader will on Monday give a lecture at Columbia University and address the UN General Assembly’s annual session, for the third consecutive year.

Mr Ahmadinejad’s forthcoming appearance at the UN has been condemned by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who have organized a mass rally for 12 noon on Monday at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza directly across from the United Nations.

In a video statement on the organization’s web site, Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein says that Mr Ahmadinejad’s presence will “defile” the UN because Iran has violated the UN’s charter by threatening to destroy Israel, sponsored the terrorist organizations Hamas and Hezbollah, committed human rights atrocities against its own citizens and violated UN sanctions against its nuclear program.

Mr Ahmadinejad has also repeatedly denied the murder of six million Jews under the Nazi regime during the Holocaust, calling it a “myth”. In December 2006, he hosted a conference in Tehran which drew Holocaust deniers from around the world, including former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke of Louisiana.

The following month, Mr Ahmadinejad claimed that “the demise of the US and the Zionist regime is imminent,” according to Iran’s official FARS News Agency.

Last week, Mr Ahmadinejad reconfirmed in a televised interview with the UK’s Channel 4 News that Iran “does not accept or recognize Israel” whom he called “illegitimate occupiers” of Palestinian land. When asked about his previous statements that Israel should be wiped off the map, he responded, “It will happen.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging the UN to “revoke any invitation to President Ahmadinejad to address the General Assembly” because of his repeated calls for thedestruction of Israel, as well as Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in the Middle East, its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support of Shia militias who continue to kill US troops and undermine political stability in Iraq. He also said Mr Ahmadinejad should be indicted under the Genocide Convention.

Although Mr Ban has in the past expressed “shock and dismay” at Iran’s hostile attitude towards Israel, a fellow UN member state, he has not responded to calls to ban the Iranian president from addressing the UN.

Calls for Mr Ahmadinejad to be banned from Ground Zero have been rather more successful.

New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly warned the Iranian president to avoid Ground Zero because such a visit could incite an aggressive response from crowds who would inevitably gather to protest.

“Obviously, Ground Zero has tremendous emotion attached to it and that might affect the reaction of crowds,” said Mr Kelly.

US President George Bush told a White House press conference last week, “I can understand why they would not want somebody who is running a country who is a state sponsor of terror down there at the site.”

In May last year, the Iranian leader wrote to Mr Bush suggesting that the 9/11 attacks looked like an inside job, according to the UK’s Guardian. “Could it be planned and executed without coordination with intelligence and security services – or their extensive infiltration?” asked Mr Ahmadinejad. “Of course this is just an educated guess. Why have the various aspects of the attacks been kept secret?”

American Jewish leaders also vehemently opposed his proposed visit to Ground Zero on the basis of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism. “To have the leader of the greatest state sponsor of terrorism in the world visit the site of the most heinous terrorist attack on America would be an affront to the victims and families of 9/11 and to all who lived through that day,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The Anti-Defamation League also tried to persuade Columbia University to withdraw its invitation for Mr Ahmadinejad to give a lecture at the World Leaders Forum at the School of International and Public Affairs on Monday, without success.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who has written three highly acclaimed texts on the First Amendment, said in a statement that the lecture would be an important opportunity to demonstrate the value of free speech in an open society. As a condition of giving his lecture, Mr Ahmadinejad has agreed to divide his time evenly between delivering his comments and responding to audience questions.

Mr Bollinger also stressed that “I will myself introduce the event with a series of sharp challenges to the President on issues including:

  • the Iranian President’s denial of the Holocaust;
  • his public call for the destruction of the state of Israel;
  • his reported support for international terrorism that targets innocent civilians and American troops;
  • Iran’s pursuit of nuclear ambitions in opposition to international sanction;
  • his government’s widely documented suppression of civil society and particularly of women’s rights; and
  • his government’s imprisoning of journalists and scholars, including one of Columbia own alumni, Dr Kian Tajbakhsh.”

Mr Bollinger further insisted that an academic community dedicated to learning and scholarship must be prepared to confront ideas that “many, most, or even all of us will find offensive and even odious”.

In any event, it seems that Mr Ahmadinejad’s feet will hit the fire as soon as he arrives on campus. Columbia University students have planned a mass protest to greet him on the steps of Low Memorial Library, where they have already hung posters depicting a range of human rights abuses in Iran, including the public executions of homosexuals.

Student Sharona Getz, 22, told the New York Daily News: “Any student who cares about freedom of sexuality and freedom of religion should stand up and protest against this murderous dictator.”

The paper also reported that, “While many plan to protest his terrorist-loving views, it was hard to find a student who thought he should be barred from campus.”

Such is the opinion of Iranian law student Matin Hughes, 27, who said, “If we believe in freedom of speech, I think we should let him come.”

Columbia has barred non-students from the campus on Monday for security reasons.

Mr Ahmadinejad is expected to leave the US on Wednesday morning for Venezuela, where he will meet with President Hugo Chavez.

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