NEW YORK – The chants of protesters and speeches of supporters faded away outside as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran addressed students and faculty at Columbia University on Monday afternoon, asserting his nation’s right to develop nuclear energy and asking for additional research perspectives on the Holocaust.Lee C. Bollinger, president of the university, opened the discussion, which was part of the World Leaders Forum, sponsored by Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Bollinger’s remarks set a pugilistic tone, citing unlawful imprisonments and the “suppression of efforts to support a more democratic society” in Iran.
“Let’s be up front at the beginning,” Bollinger said. “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”
Ahmadinejad’s speech focused on advantages and dangers of science, emphasized by his response to questions about nuclear energy. He insisted Iran has the right, under International Atomic Energy Agency bylaws, to have peaceful nuclear technology and has passed numerous inspections.
“Two or three monopolistic, selfish powers want to monopolize all science or knowledge and impose their will on the Iranian people,” Ahmadinejad said, adding that Iran is ready to negotiate with all countries, except for the “Zionist regime” of Israel.
When asked if he sought Israel’s destruction, Ahmadinejad said: “We love all nations. We are friends with the Jewish people.”
He asserted that the Palestinians – Jewish, Muslim and Christian – should be allowed to determine their own nation, without outside interference.
Bollinger asked Ahmadinejad about his denials of the Holocaust, calling him “either brazenly provocative or astonishingly ignorant” about the well-documented genocide.
Ahmadinejad stated that he merely questioned why research was not being done on different perspectives of the event and the consequences in Palestine.
“Why should the Palestinian people pay the price of an event they had nothing to with?” he asked. “Is this what you call freedom?”
Addressing questions about executions of homosexuals in his country, Ahmadinejad said America also has capital punishment. The United States does not reward drug traffickers or armed robbers, he said.
“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” Ahmadinejad said. “In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who has told you that we have it.”
Protesters lined Broadway Avenue and hundreds of students gathered at Columbia’s campus, demonstrating the controversy that had emerged in anticipation of Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia.
“This is the right thing to do, required by the norms of free speech, the American university and this university,” Bollinger said in his opening comments. “This event has nothing whatsoever to do with the rights of this speaker but with our right to listen. In universities, we have a deep and almost single-minded pursuit of the truth.”
Although they said they did not support Ahmadinejad himself, many Iranian students supported the decision to invite him to campus.
“I personally wouldn’t get a chance to oppose him in Iran,” said Negar Mortazavi, 25, a Brandeis graduate student. “If not here, then where?”
Columbia student Fergus Scully, 19, stood holding a sign that read, “Ahmadinejad belongs in Guantanamo NOT at Columbia” because he said the Iranian government funds acts of terrorism in Lebanon, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East.
“I’m not against free speech,” Scully said. “But this isn’t an intellectual debate. You’re giving him the forum he wants and legitimizing his presence in the U.S.”
Rabbi Charles E. Savenor, an associate dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, said he opposes the invitation because Ahmadinejad’s speeches promote persecution and destroying Israel.
“I respect Bollinger’s commitment to free speech,” Savenor said. “But the policies of Ahmadinejad’s country are more telling than any rhetoric he has to say.