Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was greeted with student protests and withering public criticism during a visit to Columbia University Monday in which he defended his government's human rights record, denounced Israel and rejected U.S. efforts to restrict Iran's nuclear program.
Speaking to students and faculty at Columbia a day ahead of his scheduled address to the United Nations General Assembly, the hard-line Iranian president also asserted that his people, including women, "enjoy the highest levels of freedom," and he claimed that homosexuality does not exist in his country.
Before his speech, he came under unusually harsh criticism from Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who condemned what he said was the Ahmadinejad government's expanding crackdown on dissent, its persecution of the B'hai religious minority and homosexuals, its support for the destruction of Israel and its pursuit of a "proxy war" against U.S. forces in Iraq.
"Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," Bollinger told Ahmadinejad from a podium across the stage. He said the Iranian's denial 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." Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust suggested he was either "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated," Bollinger said.
The university president's caustic comments were met with cheers and sustained applause from the roughly 700 people in the audience, most of them students.
Ahmadinejad called the introductory speech insulting and said Bollinger was misinformed. But he went on to repeat his assertions that the Holocaust should be researched "from different perspectives," and he denounced the punishment in Europe of "a number of academics" who were "questioning certain aspects of it." He also said Palestinians should not be "paying the price for an event they had nothing to do with."
The New York Times quotes Ahmadinejad as saying there is insufficient research on the truth of Nazi Germany and the Jews:
He said that as an academic he questioned whether there was “sufficient research” about what happened after World War II, referring to the Holocaust.
I'm going to read the full transcript of the Ahmadinejad speech later, but from what I see in early reports, his statements confirm the argument I made yesterday. As witnessed today, Ahmadinejad has reaffirmed Iran's denial of the Holocaust, and his speech continues the Iranian regime's campaign to weaken the legitimacy of the Israeli state.
As the Los Angeles Times reported today, Ahmadinejad's resistance to Israel and the United States has built the Iranian regime a growing following among Arabs in countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia:
...Ahmadinejad's intense distrust of the U.S. and hatred of Israel have elevated him to mythical status for the frustrated Arab mechanic, taxi driver or lawyer seeking a pure, forceful message.
The Times article notes further that Arab public opinion holds Iran up with Hezbollah and Hamas as a glorious Middle East underdog, battling larger, insidious Western forces. It's clear among large segments of the Arab street that Iran's well-suited - with its aggressive intentions and growing nuclear capability - to lead a revisionist challenge to Middle East regional order.
Much of the blogosphere is up in arms over Columbia's decision to sponsor an Ahmadinejad lecture. The anger is fully understandable, but in the long run I think the Iranian president's words will provide additional support for a firm stand against Iran's drive to weaken international security.
Further, the left blogosphere's noxious defense of Iran - not to mention the left's continued statements of moral equivalency between Bush administration and the Iranian regime - will further discredit the radical political agenda and ideology in current debates over U.S. policy in the Middle East.