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Ahmadinezhad in New York

Farhang Jahanpour, TFF Associate*


September 30, 2007

During the past week, Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinezhad, along with many other heads of states, were in New York to take part in the United Nations General Assembly. He was primarily there to defuse the dangerous confrontation with the West over Iran's nuclear programme (although his speech at the UN did little to defuse that tension).

Iran believes that on the basis of the Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT], to which Iran is one of the earliest signatories, it is her "inalienable right" to engage in peaceful nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment. However, the United States and her allies are pushing for more sanctions at the UN Security Council against Iran, although the lack of support from some permanent members has forced them to postpone it till November.

The latest report by Muhammad al-Baradi'i, the managing director of the IAEA, pointing out that there has not been any indication of the diversion of nuclear technology to military purposes, and IAEA's comprehensive agreement with Iran to clarify the remaining issues connected with Iran's nuclear file have complicated America's cause. He told Italian television this week, "Iran does not constitute a certain and immediate threat for the international community." Having lost the propaganda war over the nuclear issue, US politicians and military leaders switched their attack to Iran's alleged involvement in the supply of weapons to Shi'i and Sunni insurgents in Iraq and incredibly even to the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and to the al-Qaeda.

It must have come as a great embarrassment to President Bush and his aides that his claims were immediately denied and contradicted by the "democratically-elected" leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan. Both the Iraqi Shi'i Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Sunni President Jalal Talabani denied the supply of Iranian weapons to Iraqi insurgents, while the Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that Iran played a very helpful and constructive role in Afghanistan. Iraqi leaders have furthermore strongly objected to the US detention of a few Iranians who had gone to Iraq at their invitation to help with the supply of energy.

As part of his visit to New York, Ahmadinezhad had asked to visit Ground Zero in order to pay his respects to the victims of the terrorist atrocity there. However, New York authorities, backed by the US State Department, said no. The Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton also chimed in by calling the idea “unacceptable” while the leading Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani blasted Ahmadinejad for his “threats against America and Israel.”

This is despite the fact that not only had Iran nothing to do with those atrocities, but was one of the main victims of the initially US-backed Taliban that sheltered and supported Osama Bin Laden. Iran and the Taliban nearly went to war after the Taliban killed a number of Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e Sharif. At that time, the US State Department warned Iran against any military action against their allies, the Taliban.

It is also worth remembering that in the days after Sep. 11, 2001, Iran was one of the first nations to express compassion for American pain, as thousands of Iranians took part in spontaneous candle-lit vigils in Tehran and other Iranian cities. Iran's President Mohammed Khatami, in an interview with CNN, expressed his “deepest condolences to the American nation and . . . sorrow for the tragic event of September 11. What occurred was a disaster . . . the ugliest form of terrorism ever seen.” He made some of the most eloquent remarks in condemnation of the terrorists, by saying: "They have self-mutilated their hearts, minds, tongues, eyes and ears and can only communicate in the language of violence."

Let us not forget that it was under the reform-minded Khatami, and not Ahmadinezhad, that President Bush infamously included Iran in "an Axis of Evil" with Iraq and North Korea. No three countries were less suited to form an axis than those three countries. This was despite the fact that Iran had fought a devastating eight-year long war against Saddam Hussein who had been backed to the hilt by the United States and other Western countries, and despite the fact that Iran and Iraq were hardly on speaking terms. North Korea had also very limited contacts with either Iran or Iraq.

The tragic events at the World Trade Centre site could have acted as a means of bringing nations together, as there was universal sympathy for the United States and revulsion against the terrorists. Instead, the transformation of that terrorist act into an excuse for a number of unilateral and illegal wars has turned the United States from one of the most loved and respected countries into one of the most feared and hated countries.

Ahmadinezhad's presence at Ground Zero could have reminded him of the consequences of unchecked terrorism, which has afflicted Iran in the past and could do so in the future if the sectarian conflict in Iraq and the Persian Gulf spreads to other countries. It could have also been used as a sign of common humanity, friendship and magnanimity by the Americans to show that tragedy can bring all nations closer together.

However, this rebuff to the Iranian president was part of a general campaign to demonise the Iranian regime and the Iranian president. Last year, at the same time when Ahmadinezhad was visiting the United Nations, Columbia University invited him to speak at the university. That time, the speech was cancelled due to strong protests by Jewish organisations and on security grounds. However, this year Columbia University decided to go ahead with the meeting and Ahmadinezhad was invited to speak to a packed audience. Apparently, all online tickets evaporated within 90 minutes from issue, and there was a huge crowd watching his speech on the screens outside.

However, thousands of mainly Jewish demonstrators barricaded the campus of Columbia University and took part in a noisy demonstration against him, comparing Ahmadinezhad to Hitler and carrying banners with the slogans such as "Hitler is alive", "Evil has landed", "Bollinger, too bad bin Laden is not available”. The mob that tried in this outrageous way to deny the Iranian president the right of free speech was doing a great disservice to America. There are not many countries in the world that have the right of free speech enshrined in the First Amendment to their Constitution. The right to free speech, even by those with whom we disagree, has been one of the United States' greatest gifts to mankind, and it would be a tragedy if this sacred right is violated due to the intolerance of a number of fanatics who wish to replace shouting and violence for debate and reasoned argument.

Lee C. Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, who had come under intense attack for the invitation, rose to introduce his host. However, instead of the usual compliments that one pays to an invited guest, Bollinger launched a 10-minute verbal tirade of insults and accusations against his guest. He started by telling Ahmadinezhad: “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator… I doubt you will have the intellectual courage to answer [our] questions . . . I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mind-set that characterizes so much of what you say and do." He cited the Iranian government's "brutal crackdown" on dissidents, public executions, execution of minors and homosexuals and other crimes. He assailed Ahmadinezhad's "denying" of the Holocaust as "ridiculous", and described the Iranian president as "either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated," and pointedly demanded: "Will you cease this outrage?"

Although Bollinger showed some resolve in going ahead with the invitation, he bowed to the pressures on him by violating the limits of courtesy and academic impartiality by launching such a blistering attack on the president of a country that he had invited to speak at his university. His outburst clearly satisfied his intended audience.

Shortly after his speech, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) sent out an e-mail message with the subject line, “A Must Read: Columbia University President’s Intro of Iran’s Ahmadinejad today.” Inside was a transcript of Mr. Bollinger’s introduction. Although Bollinger’s unworthy comments satisfied his opponents, it did not endear him either to the Iranian people who should decide Ahmadinezhad's fate in the polls, or create a conducive atmosphere for talks and dialogue at this very critical time when both Iran and the United States are on the brink of a catastrophe. He forgot that when Ahmadinezhad might engage in bombast, America and Israel use bombs to get their way in Iraq and Palestine.

The hypocrisy and double standards in Bollinger’s comments become clearer when one contrasts what he said about Iran's elected president and about the Pakistani president who seized power through a military coup. While he described Ahmadinejad as a "cruel and petty dictator", he welcomed the Pakistani dictator as a “central and great global” figure. He said: "President Musharraf is a leader of global importance and his contribution to Pakistan’s economic turnaround and the international fight against terror remain remarkable - it is rare that we have a leader of his stature at campus."

For the sake of argument, let us imagine that the shoe had been on the other foot. Let us imagine that the president of Tehran University had invited President Bush to speak at Tehran University and then had introduced him in the following manner: "Mr president! You have launched an illegal and immoral war against a nation that you falsely accused of possessing nuclear weapons. You killed over a million of its innocent people. You drove 2.4 millions away from their homes to be refugees in their own country, and you have driven another two million Iraqis into neighbouring countries that you also demonise. You have stolen their oil, shattered their country, destroyed its infrastructure, its civil society, and its civilian and military administration. You have created sectarian strife in a country where millions of Kurds, Shi'is and Sunnis had lived in peace for many centuries. You created torture chambers in Abu-Ghraib and Guantanamo and scores of secret torture cells in different parts of the world. Domestically, you have imposed unprecedented surveillance on your people and have undermined their democratic rights. You have arrested a number of Iranian officials in Iraq without any justification and are still holding them despite the pleas of Iraqi leaders that they should be released. You have committed all these atrocities in the name of spreading democracy and human rights. This is a travesty of truth. Will you cease this outrage?"

If such a thing had happened the American people, whether those who support President Bush and those who oppose him, would have been rightly outraged, and would have described it as a supreme example of uncivilised and discourteous behaviour. Yet Bollinger is so filled with arrogance and self-righteousness that he feels he is entitled to insult his guest in this way, not knowing that such a biased introduction would force even Ahmadinejad's foes to stand behind him. Indeed, his boorish behaviour provided Ahmadinezhad with a degree of sympathy and respectability that he does not deserve.

Or let us imagine that Bollinger had invited the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to speak at Columbia University and had described him in the following vein: "Mr Prime Minister! You are a petty and cruel war criminal. Last year you launched a barbaric and devastating attack on your defenceless neighbour Lebanon – the fourth such invasion – and killed and wounded thousands of innocent Lebanese men, women and children. You demolished people's homes and apartments on top of their inhabitants. You indiscriminately bombed bridges, power stations, factories, mosques, churches and airports. On the last two days of your illegal invasion you scattered nearly three million cluster bombs over farms and residential areas in southern Lebanon, which is a war crime, and these kill and maim a large number of Lebanese people, especially children, each day. You have created a concentration camp for 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, who had been driven from their homes by you and by your predecessors, and you attack them from air, land and sea. In the past year alone, you have killed hundreds of Palestinians, including their elected representatives. You prevent anyone from getting in or out. You have even threatened to cut off all essential services to them. According to UN figures, some 80 per cent of the population is now living in absolute misery and poverty as the result of your actions. You continue to occupy Palestinian lands and build more illegal settlements on stolen land. Your government has secretly amassed a large arsenal of nuclear bombs in contravention of international laws, and yet you advocate war on a country that only wishes to have access to nuclear technology under the IAEA supervision. Will you cease this outrage?"

I wonder what would have been the reaction of the Jewish protestors around the campus had Bollinger dared to do that! Throwing insults is cheap and it is always easy to find fault with others and engage in name calling, but it negates the very purpose of dialogue and discussion.

By comparison, Ahmadinezhad's response was more dignified and restrained.

He reminded his host: “In Iran, tradition requires that when you invite a person to be a speaker, we actually respect our students enough to allow them to make their own judgement. We don’t think it’s necessary before the speech is even given to come in with a series of complaints to provide vaccination to the students and faculty… I think the text read by the dear gentleman here, more than addressing me, was an insult to information and the knowledge of the audience here. In a university environment we must allow people to speak their mind, to allow everyone to talk so that the truth is eventually revealed to all.” He added, to some cheers, “Nonetheless, I shall not begin by being affected by this unfriendly treatment. We'll just leave that to add up with the claims of respect for freedom of speech.”

In answer to a question as to whether his government sought the destruction of the state of Israel, Ahmadinezhad replied: “We love all people. We are friends of the Jews. There are many Jews living peacefully and with security in Iran. You must understand that according to our constitution, in our parliamentary elections every 150,000 people may elect one representative to the parliament. For the Jewish community, although it is one-fifth of that number, nevertheless, they still get one independent representative in the parliament.”

When the questioner insisted on a yes or no answer, Ahmadinezhad said: “I ask you, is the Palestinian issue not a question of international importance? Please tell me yes or no.” He went on to say that all Palestinians, including Jews, Muslims and Christians should be allowed a referendum to decide their own future. Ahmadinejad insisted that Iran “will not attack any country”.
Regarding Iran's nuclear programme, he said that his country's nuclear programme was intended solely for peaceful purposes, which it has the right to pursue. He maintained that his assertion had been backed up by the United Nation's atomic watchdog agency, which has extensively inspected the country's nuclear programme.

He added: "Over and over again, the agency's response indicates Iran's activities are peaceful. Regretfully, two or three monopolistic powers – selfish powers – want to force their word on the Iranian people and deny them their right… There are two or three countries that think that they have the right to monopolise all science and all knowledge, and they expect the Iranian people, the Iranian nation, to turn to others to get fuel." He said that the countries that have developed the fourth and fifth generations of nuclear weapons and hold huge stockpiles of such weapons are not in a position to tell Iran that she should not engage in limited enrichment of uranium.
He reminded his audience that Iran had even been denied spare parts needed to maintain civilian aircraft that she had purchased from the West. "Such restrictions leave Iran reluctant to depend on other nations' promises for nuclear fuel", he added. "We don't want anything beyond the law. We are a peaceful, loving nation. We love all nations."

Then, he added: "From the start, we announced that we are ready to negotiate with all countries… We believe that with negotiations and talks everything can be resolved easily. We don't need threats. We don't need guns or bombs. We don't need to get into conflict if we talk… If the US government puts aside some of its old behaviour it can actually be a good friend for the Iranian people… If the US government recognises the rights of the Iranian people, they too will see that the Iranians will be among its best friends."

If inviting Ahmadinezhad to Columbia University was intended as a way of opening a dialogue with Iran, the remarks of the university president turned that meeting into an acrimonious occasion and simply demonstrated what John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have described in their latest book as the all-pervasive and malignant power and influence of the Zionist Lobby in the United States.

It seems that in the United States one can speak practically about anything, but there is a thick wall preventing anyone from talking about a taboo subject, namely the activities of the state of Israel.

If the students and staff of Columbia University wish to retain the good name of a leading world academic institute, they should demand that Lee C. Bollinger be fired for his arrogance, cowardice, insensitivity, bias, disservice to the cause of peace and violation of academic norms of debate and discussion.

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The Middle East is in turmoil. Pakistan is in the grip of a constitutional crisis. In Afghanistan, the Taleban are resurgent and the general situation is deteriorating. Iraq is in a state of acute crisis. Lebanon is on the brink, and there is no sign of any Arab-Israeli accord. It would be incredibly foolhardy – if not downright criminal – to compound these problems with loose and irresponsible talk that might encourage an attack on Iran.

The US government would like to bring about regime change in Iran. So do many – and perhaps the majority – of Iranians. There are many violations of human rights in Iran, including the denial of full equality for women and religious minorities and the suppression of journalists, intellectuals, students and trade union members under the present regime. Many Iranians have protested against those violations and would like to replace the present theocratic regime with a more enlightened and democratic government.

However, where they differ from the Neoconservative elements in Israel and the Unites States is that they believe that this regime change should come about through the Iranian people themselves, rather than by US or Israeli missiles and bombers. They believe that war is the greatest violation of human rights and democracy and would only make a bad situation worse. After the disastrous war in Iraq where the Americans were supposed to be welcomed with rose petals and it was going to be a cakewalk, one should be totally blind not to see that an attack on Iran would be many times worse. It seems that some people do not achieve wisdom even with the benefit of hindsight.

Instead of name-calling and demonising one another, the time has come for the United States to get into a comprehensive and meaningful dialogue with all the countries in the Middle East to achieve a fair and just solution to the existing conflicts. Instead of holding more talks about talks and 'improving Palestinian administration', the time has come to demand that Israel lives up to some of its international obligations and puts an end to its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands and stops threatening its neighbours.

There is already a very sensible proposal by the entire Arab League, also accepted by Iran, that they would all recognise Israel and would have friendly relations with her if only she would abide by international law and give up the occupied territories that she has illegally held since 1967, including East Jerusalem as the capital of a viable Palestinian state. Let us not forget that Israel already holds some 78 per cent of the mandated Palestine without taking more Palestinian lands. That would be not only in the interest of other countries of the Middle East, but would provide a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and would ensure Israel's long-term peaceful coexistence with its Arab neighbours in the Middle East.

The Art of War, a Chinese military treatise written during the 6th century BC by Sun Tzu, states: “A War is won or lost before it is ever fought.” Judging by the present level of debate both at Columbia University and at the United Nations, it is evident that a possible US war with Iran is already lost. Diplomacy is non-existent and any rational talks and negotiations have been replaced with the language of violence and aggression. The stakes are too high for the international community to remain silent in the face of these impending calamities.

* Farhang Jahanpour is a British national of Iranian origin. He has taught at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, and spent a year as a Senior Fulbright Research Scholar at Harvard. For the past 20 years he has been a part-time tutor at the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford.


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