Iran President Ahmadinejad Slams US, Israel at UN and Columbia

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday to slam the United States and Israel as “illegitimate occupiers” in the Middle East, to attack their human rights records and to declare the nuclear issue “closed”.

His appearance sparked mass protests outside the UN and also at Columbia University – where his address to the World Leaders Forum on Monday drew a mixture of laughter, boos and applause from the audience. Thousands gathered at both sites to protest Mr Ahmadinejad’s own human rights record and his past attacks on Israel.

On Tuesday, Mr Ahmadinejad told the UN that “human rights are being extensively violated by certain powers”, then made numerous references to controversial US policies including “secret prisons, trials and secret punishments, without any regard to due process, and extensive tappings of telephone conversations”.

He also levelled scathing criticism at the state of Israel for its occupation of the Palestinian people. “For more than 60 years, Palestine … has been under occupation of the illegal Zionist regime,” he said. “The Palestinian people have been displaced or are under heavy military pressure, economic siege, or are incarcerated under abhorrent conditions” – meanwhile, “the occupiers are protected and praised.”

He then accused the US of its own prolonged, illegitimate and bloody occupation: “Iraq was occupied under the pretext of overthrowing a dictator and the existence of weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi dictator, who had been supported by the same occupiers, was disposed of, and no weapons of mass destruction were discovered.” He added, “No day passes without people being killed, wounded or displaced.”

Mr Ahmadinejad maintained that his country would flatly reject calls by “arrogant powers” for Iran to end its uranium enrichment program and declared to the General Assembly, “All our nuclear activities have been completely peaceful and transparent.”

The day before his speech to the United Nations, thousands attended a noon rally directly across from the UN building to protest his address. Among the crowd was Israel’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Tzipi Livni, and US Congressman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).

“The United Nations discredits itself by having Ahmadinejad speak,” said Rep. Engel according to the Los Angeles Times, “and so does Columbia University.”

Outside the gates of Columbia University, thousands of protesters awaited the Iranian leader’s arrival on Monday afternoon, waving placards including one that read “Hitler Lives” – illustrated with a cartoon of Mr Ahmadinejad with his arms and legs configured into a swastika. Students remained divided on the issue of whether Mr Ahmadinejad should have been allowed to participate in the World Leaders Forum.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has defended the university’s decision to include the Iranian President. As expected, Mr Bollinger’s introduction of Mr Ahmadinejad to the forum began with a series of sharp criticisms of human rights abuses in Iran.

“Why have women, members of the Baha’i faith, homosexuals and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country?” asked Mr Bollinger.

He continued the introduction with a blistering broadside on the Iranian leader’s repeated denials of the Holocaust. “For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda,” said Mr Bollinger. “When you come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous.  You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated. (Applause) … The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history.”

Mr Bollinger identified Columbia University as a world center for Jewish studies and Holocaust studies and then challenged Mr Ahmadinejad regarding his hostile remarks about the state of Israel: “Twelve days ago, you said that the state of Israel ‘cannot continue its life’.  This echoed a number of inflammatory statements you have delivered in the last two years, including in October 2005 when you said that Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’ … Do you plan on wiping us off the map, too?” Hearing this, the crowd burst into applause.

He also asked Mr Ahmadinejad why he supports terrorist groups who undermine peace and democracy in the Middle East, why Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq by arming Shia militias and why he has exposed the Iranian people to economic sanctions while threatening to “engulf the world with nuclear annihilation”. This elicited more applause.

As Mr Ahmadinejad took his place at the podium, he complained that Mr Bollinger’s introduction had been “unfriendly” and had contained “many insults and claims that were incorrect”. He added that this was an “insult to the knowledge of the audience here”.

Side-stepping Mr Bollinger’s series of challenges, Mr Ahmadinejad read his prepared speech in which he made thinly-veiled accusations that the US government had created “nonexistent enemies” to justify its civil rights abuses at home and its “warmongering” abroad. He also claimed the Holocaust required “more research” and said the Palestinian people should not be forced to “pay the price” for historical events that took place in Europe.

After his speech, he was further questioned by forum moderator John Coatsworth, the Acting Dean of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

During question time, Mr Ahmadinejad denied calling for the destruction of the state of Israel. “We love all nations,” he said. “We are friends with the Jewish people. There are many Jews living in Iran with security … We say allow the Palestinian nation to decide its own future, to have the right to self-determination for itself. This is what we are saying as the Iranian nation.” At this point, the audience applauded.

There was more applause, along with some laughter, as Mr Ahmadinejad and Mr Coatsworth sparred over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Mr Coatsworth: Mr. President, I think many members of our audience would be — would like to hear a clearer answer to that question, that is — (interrupted by cheers, applause) … The question is: Do you or your government seek the destruction of the state of Israel as a Jewish state? And I think you could answer that question with a single word, either yes or no. (Cheers, applause)

Mr Ahmadinejad: And then you want the answer the way you want to hear it. Well, this isn’t really a free flow of information. I’m just telling you where I — what my position is. (Applause.) I’m asking you, is the Palestinian issue not an international issue of prominence or not? Please tell me, yes or no. (Laughter, applause) There’s a plight of a people.

Mr Coatsworth: The answer to your question is yes. (Laughter)

Mr Ahmadinejad: Well, thank you for your cooperation.

In response to the vaguely-worded question of why “Iranian women are now being denied human rights”, Mr Ahmadinejad noted that women have the right to vote and are represented at the highest levels in parliament, the public sector and universities.

When questioned about the practice of executing homosexuals in Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad’s claim that “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country” drew roars of laughter and an audible wave of booing from the audience.

Mr Ahmadinejad also denied that Iran sponsors terror groups in the Middle East and said, “We were the first nation that objected to terrorism and the first to uphold the need to fight terrorism.”

When the nuclear issue came up during question time, Mr Ahmadinejad clarified the specifications of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program which he insisted was for peaceful purposes. “The technology we have is for enrichment below the level of 5 percent [uranium purity], and any level below 5 percent is solely for providing fuel to power plants,” he said. “If you have created the fifth generation of atomic bombs and are testing them already, what position are you in to question the peaceful purposes of other people who want nuclear power?”

He then seized the opportunity to take a swipe at the nuclear-armed nations who now oppose Iran’s nuclear enrichment program due to fears that the country is trying to develop an atomic weapon. “I think the politicians who are after atomic bombs, testing them, making them — politically they are backward, retarded.” This comment was met with applause.

Despite the controversy surrounding his visit, many students supported the university’s decision to invite the Iranian President to speak – including Jewish students. “You at least have to let the guy speak,” postgraduate student David Freedenberg, 28, told The Telegraph. “Why should just one world leader be denied that chance? There will be questions. If I had been alive in the 1930s I would have wanted to hear what Hitler was saying. There’s no point just covering your ears.”

Others saw the event as a triumph of free speech. “I’m glad he had the chance to talk,” said student Cyrus McGoldrick, 19, in the Los Angeles Times. “And I’m glad the crowd stayed quiet for him.”

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