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Ahmadinejad Answers To U.S. Students In New York

By Nikola Krastev
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia University in New York City on September 24
NEW YORK, September 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad delivered a speech and took questions from U.S. students during a controversial appearance today at prestigious Columbia University in New York City.

Although influential politicians and public figures urged the university to cancel the event, hundreds of protesters gathered near the university's campus, and police in riot gear patrolled the streets, there was no violence and tensions were resolved peacefully.

Inside the auditorium it appeared a large number of Ahmadinejad sympathizers were present, as his speech was often interrupted by applause.

Ahmadinejad's composed demeanor during his 90-minute presentation was at times in stark contrast with previous behavior the West has come to see as irrational and insulting.

This time Ahmadinejad did not question the existence of the Holocaust in World War II, but only said "more research is needed." He did, however, cast doubt on the official account of the events of 9-11, predictably drawing the ire of the audience.

Few Direct Answers

His introductory remarks -- a strange preaching about God and the virtues of scientific research -- was peppered with quotes from the Bible as well as from the Koran.

Ahmadinejad's main message was that man should preserve the "purity of spirit" during ordeals. Later in his speech he spoke about oppressive regimes using bacteriological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, and about the plight of the Palestinians in Israel.

"You should know that according to Iranian Constitution, there is one MP for 150,000 persons, while for the Jews --  who are only one-fifth of that number - there is one independent MP," he said. "Our suggestion for solving the 60-year-old problem of Palestine is a humanitarian, democratic solution: Let the Palestinian people choose their own destiny themselves. This is in accordance with the UN Charter."

Ahmadinejad continued, "Let the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Palestinians decide about their future themselves. Let there be a free referendum. Do not let anyone interfere in Palestinian people's affairs, do not let anyone create discord; do not let anyone sell billions of dollars of weaponry to some others. We say let the Palestinians choose their own destiny themselves."

During the question and answer session, the Iranian president avoided giving direct answers to questions he did not like, or responded with a question of his own.

Asked why his government provides aid to terrorists, he said, "I want to ask you a question. If someone plants a bomb and assassinates your president, the cabinet members and members of the congress, what will you do? Will you reward him or call him a terrorist? Of course, you will call him a terrorist."

Trying to appeal to -- or maybe to appease -- Columbia students, Ahmadinejad spoke in detail about his own academic pursuits. He emphasized the fact that he continues to lecture to students in Tehran.

The Holocaust 'Happened'

On the question of Holocaust -- which in this venue he did not deny, as he has many times before -- he said, "granted, it happened" but insisted that more research is needed to determine what exactly happened.

"I am an academic, just like you. Can you say that a research about a subject is finished? Can you say that research about history is finished? Well, each research adds a new dimension. Why should research be prevented?"

In introducing Ahmadinejad to the audience, Columbia University's President Lee Bollinger described him as someone who exhibits all the signs of "a petty and cruel dictator" and said that his remarks on Holocaust make him "simply ridiculous." 

Some students in the audience, like Dale Stahl, 28-year old doctoral student of history, took issue with Bollinger's harsh introduction and said because Ahmadinejad was democratically elected, Bollinger should not have made a personal attack.

Stahl said, "Our own president could've perhaps been less personal in his attacks on him. I think that if you are going to bring a head of state to university -- a personal attack is not necessarily a conducive way to begin a conversation."

Appearance Sparks Free Speech Debate

Jewish students in the audience, like Alex Port, a third-year biology student, were more supportive of the school president's comments.

"In terms of Ahmadinejad I think that Bollinger issued a very-very strong challenge to him," Port said. "And in his typical fashion he dodges questions because he can't answer to his other statements, you know. He is a polemicist and he can't answer for himself."

Ahmadinejad's invitation to appear at Columbia University sparked a wider debate beyond the campus about whether he should have been allowed to speak. Many Americans believe Ahmadinejad's government not only abuses the human rights of its own citizens, but also is helping arm fellow Shi'as in neighboring Iraq so they can kill U.S. troops. Many also scorn him for questioning whether the Holocaust in World War II actually occurred.

Walter Berns, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute -- a private policy-research center in Washington -- specializes in political philosophy and U.S. constitutional law. He said Ahmadinejad is 'contemptible' and should be barred because he's not worthy of the honor. By allowing him to speak, he argues, Columbia is bestowing false importance on him.

But John Samples, who studies the U.S. Constitution at the Cato Institute, another Washington think tank, said the only speech that can be muzzled in the United States is speech that puts people in direct peril. In Ahmadinejad's case, Samples said, the speech could be canceled if it were known it were to be full of hateful invective or otherwise encouraged civil unrest. But the only overt reaction to his appearance was a series of protests, which Samples called simply "speech against speech."

Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia was part of the university's annual World Leaders Forum. Among other prominent participants this year are the presidents of Chile, Georgia, Estonia, and Turkmenistan.

Copyright (c) 2007 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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