Iranian leader receives rough reception in N.Y.

Times Staff Writer

new york --Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faced sharp criticism Monday about his opinions on women, gays, Israel, nuclear weapons and the Holocaust in an appearance at Columbia University, where protesters lined the streets bearing signs reading, “Hitler Lives.”

Inside a crowded lecture hall, the university president issued blistering introductory remarks. Ahmadinejad exhibits “all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” declared Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger, who questioned the Iranian leader’s record on human rights and his statements that the Holocaust was a myth.

Ahmadinejad bristled at Bollinger’s comments, calling the introduction “an insult to the knowledge of the audience here.”


The confrontation continued during a question and answer period when the moderator, John H. Coatsworth -- Columbia’s interim dean of the School of International and Public Affairs -- accused Ahmadinejad of avoiding questions about Israel and about Iran’s treatment of women and gays.

The divisive Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” was invited to Columbia as part of his New York trip to the United Nations this week. Today, he is scheduled to address the General Assembly about sanctions imposed against Tehran over its nuclear program. His remarks come at a time when the U.S. has accused Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Controversy surrounding the visit had been rumbling for days, with some groups demanding that the United Nations and Columbia deny Iran’s president a public forum.

Bollinger defended Columbia’s invitation to Ahmadinejad, saying it would provide a forum for free speech and healthy debate. New York City officials, bowing to public pressure, had refused his request to visit Ground Zero. Ahmadinejad had said he wanted to pay his respects to the Sept. 11 victims and their families.

On Monday, New Yorkers awoke to the front-page headline “THE EVIL HAS LANDED,” from the New York Daily News, which also called the Iranian leader a “hatemonger.” A New York Post headline read: “Madman Iran Prez.”

At noon, scores of people gathered across from the United Nations to protest Ahmadinejad’s visit, as heavily armed police surveyed the crowd. Many schools turned the event into a field trip, busing hundreds of students to the demonstration.

“Anybody who [seeks] to destroy Israel is a threat to the U.S.,” said John Ganzarski, 17, who came with 450 of his classmates from the Ramaz School, a Jewish Modern Orthodox Yeshiva school on the Upper East Side.

“The United Nations has a history of inviting people who probably shouldn’t be allowed to speak in the public eye,” he added, referring to past visits by controversial leaders including the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin; the late Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat; and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- who, during his New York trip last September, called President Bush a devil.

At the U.N. rally, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) told the crowd that Ahmadinejad “shouldn’t be welcomed to speak; he should be arrested for terrorism.”

“The United Nations discredits itself by having Ahmadinejad speak,” Engel said, “and so does Columbia University.”

An hour later, people lined the streets outside Columbia as police barricades blocked the crowd from entering the campus. A few thousand students and visitors blanketed the campus lawn and sidewalks, some wrapped in Iranian flags, others wearing “Jerusalem” T-shirts. They listened mostly in silence to Ahmadinejad’s remarks over loudspeakers, which were translated from Persian to English.

The remarks echoed across the quad, where students had plastered sidewalks and steps with posters accusing Iran of human rights abuses. One poster depicted Iranian teenagers who allegedly were on their way to execution because they were gay.

Other posters defended Iran as a peaceful nation, including one that read: “Iranians held candlelight vigils to pay respect to the victims of 9/11 attacks.”

One woman ripped the Iran peace posters off the ground, crumpling them into balls. Two men broke into a shouting match over Israel and the Palestinians.

Inside, the discussion was peaceful, yet confrontational.

At one point, Coatsworth read an audience question: “Do you or your government seek the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state?”

Ahmadinejad replied: “We love all nations. We are friends with the Jewish people. There are many Jews living in Iran with security.”

He went on, “Our proposal to the Palestinian plight is a humanitarian and a democratic proposal. What we say is that to solve this 60-year problem, we must allow the Palestinian people to decide about its future for itself.”

Coatsworth asked him again: “I think many members of our audience would like to hear a clearer answer to that question.” As members of the audience cheered and clapped, the dean repeated the question and said, “I think you can answer that question in a simple way, either yes or no.”

“You ask the question,” Ahmadinejad replied, “and you want the answer the way you want to hear it.”

Reading another audience question, Coatsworth asked about punishment against Iranians who are homosexual.

Ahmadinejad said: “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.”

His response brought wild laughter from some Columbia students on the lawn.

Ahmadinejad continued: “In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have this.”

Columbia College senior Ari Gardner, from St. Louis, said he thought Bollinger’s comments were appropriate.

“It was very forceful. It was very strong. I would have been very disappointed if he’d done anything less,” Gardner said. “I think that Ahmadinejad made a mockery of the freedom of expression. He took every single accusation against Iran and lodged it against the U.S. and the Western world.”

At the same time, the Iranian leader received some cheers inside the hall and on the lawn when he referred to the situation in the Mideast as a “60-year problem” and questioned why the Palestinians should “pay the price” for the Holocaust.

Shaka Abubakar, 46, a Muslim with a daughter studying science at Columbia, said he was a fan of Ahmadinejad. “The man’s mind is very clear. He makes statements that are provocative, but so does every other leader in the world.”

Some said they appreciated the event as a healthy exercise in free speech. “I’m glad he had the chance to talk,” said student Cyrus McGoldrick, 19. “And I’m glad the crowd stayed quiet for him.”


Special correspondents Eugene Mulero and Sarah N. Lynch contributed to this report.