(AFP) – Sep 24, 2007
NEW YORK (AFP) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suffered the rare humiliation of a public dressing down when he appeared at a top US university Monday, where he was labelled a "petty and cruel dictator."
The firebrand president's appearance at Columbia University came a day ahead of his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, but his presence here has sparked bitter controversy, notably because of his outspoken stance on Israel.
Booed, cheered and strongly challenged on his views on the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad seemed to take the challenges in his stride but complained of "unfriendly treatment" at the hands of the New York university.
He used the opportunity to reject his label of a Holocaust denier, to insist the Islamic republic had the right to pursue a civilian nuclear energy program and to deny Tehran was seeking nuclear weapons.
But before he even spoke, Ahmadinejad was forced to sit through 10 minutes of broadsides from university president Lee Bollinger, who had been heavily criticized by Jewish groups and US politicians for inviting the Iranian leader.
"Mr President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," Bollinger told Ahmadinejad, accusing him of brutal crackdowns notably on the country's academics and homosexuals and for stifling dissent.
"Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?" he asked, challenging the leader of the Islamic republic to explain his comments downplaying the Holocaust.
"Frankly, in all candor Mr President, I doubt you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions," he added.
"When you come to a place like this, this makes you quite simply ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated," he said.
When he did get to his feet, wearing a white open-necked shirt and gray suit, Ahmadinejad accused Bollinger of a "wave of insults and allegations" while largely avoiding any direct answers to Bollinger's challenges.
After initially seeming a little flustered, Ahmadinejad grew more relaxed as he got into his stride to accuse the United States of trying to block Iran's legitimate desire to achieve scientific progress in its atomic program.
"We do not believe in nuclear weapons. Period. It goes against the whole grain of humanity," he said.
"I think the politicians who are after atomic bombs or are testing them, making them, politically, they are backward, retarded," he added.
Smiling and occasionally laughing as he talked of Iran's culture and outlook on the world, Ahmadinejad drew the biggest jeers from students for stating that homosexuality did not exist in the Islamic republic.
"In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country," he said to howls and boos. "In Iran we don't have this phenomenon, I don't know who told you this."
When questioned on comments he has made in the past over the mass killing of the Jews during World War II, he said: "I'm not saying that it didn't happen at all ... I said 'given that it happened'".
Ahmadinejad, who has called for the destruction of Israel and questioned the true scale of the Holocaust, earlier said he was open to meeting survivors of the devastating Nazi pogrom.
Speaking via satellite to Washington's National Press Club he said Iran was working with UN nuclear inspectors and downplayed talk that the United States and Iran are on a collision course to war.
"We think that talk of war is a propaganda tool. Why is there a need for a war?" he asked.
The UN Security Council has adopted three resolutions against Iran. Two include sanctions because of Iran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment.
Asked about Iraq, Ahmadinejad again denied Iran was providing advanced weapons to Shiite extremists to use against US troops.
"We think, in fact, the (US) military should seek an answer to its defeat in Iraq elsewhere," he said, insisting Tehran wanted a stable Iraq on its border.
Outside Columbia, a small group of protestors gathered to vent their fury that the Iranian leader had been given a platform to speak out, while students rallied to demand the world avoid war with the Islamic republic.
Plans by Ahmadinejad to visit Ground Zero, the site of the September 11 attacks of 2001, sparked outrage in the United States.
His intended visit to what many Americans view as hallowed ground was nixed by New York police for security reasons. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said such a visit would have been a "travesty."
Ahmadinejad countered that he only wanted to show his respect to the 2,750 people killed in the attacks.
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