Video: Mystical populist: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

updated 9/21/2007 2:20:42 PM ET 2007-09-21T18:20:42

Columbia University said it does not plan to call off a speech by Iran’s president despite pressure from critics including the City Council speaker, who said the Ivy League school was providing a forum for “hate-mongering vitriol.”

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is traveling to New York to address the United Nations’ General Assembly. He was to appear Monday at a question-and-answer session with Columbia faculty and students as part of the school’s World Leaders Forum.

The State Department calls Iran a state sponsor of terror, and Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust “a myth” and urged for Israel to be destroyed.

City Council speaker Christine Quinn called Thursday for the university to rescind the invitation, saying “the idea of Ahmadinejad as an honored guest anywhere in our city is offensive to all New Yorkers.”

Quinn, a Democrat, said Ahmadinejad was coming to the city “for one reason — to spread his hate-mongering vitriol on the world stage.”

His planned appearance at Columbia also was condemned by Jewish groups including the Jewish Defense Organization, which described Ahmadinejad as “the Hitler of Iran.”

Columbia spokesman Robert Hornsby said Thursday there was no plan to cancel the appearance, though the university dropped plans for an Ahmadinejad speech last year because of security and logistical problems. The decision came after a Jewish activist group expressed outrage over the invitation.

Mayor, White House weigh in
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday that the university was free to invite Ahmadinejad to speak, but “personally, I wouldn’t go to listen to him — I don’t care about what he says.”

White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said Friday that the Bush administration had no involvement with Columbia’s decision.

“This is a country where people can come and speak their minds,” he said, adding, “It would be wonderful if some of the countries that take advantage of that here allowed it for their own citizens there.”

Columbia President Lee Bollinger, in announcing Ahmadinejad’s upcoming appearance, described the event as part of “Columbia’s long-standing tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate.” He said the Iranian president had agreed to answer questions on Israel and the Holocaust.

Ahmadinejad’s trip to New York also ignited a debate this week over his rejected request to lay a wreath at ground zero. Politicians and families of Sept. 11 victims were outraged that Iran’s president might visit the site.

Police rejected Ahmadinejad’s request, citing construction and security concerns. In an interview scheduled to air Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Ahmadinejad indicated he would not press the issue but expressed disbelief that the visit would offend Americans.

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