Iranians expressed dismay Tuesday at the tough reception given to their president in New York, saying his host was rude and only fueled the image of the United States as a bully.
The scenes at Monday’s question-and-answer session at Columbia University and the outpouring of venom toward President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by protesters during his U.S. visit could bolster the hard-line leader at a time of high tensions with Washington.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s statement — including telling Ahmadinejad that he resembles a “petty and cruel dictator” — offended Iranians on many levels, not least that of simple hospitality. In traditions of the region, a host should be polite to a guest, no matter what he thinks of him.
The chancellors of seven Iranian universities issued a letter to Bollinger saying his “insult, in a scholarly atmosphere, to the president of a country with ... a recorded history of 7,000 years of civilization and culture is deeply shameful.”
They invited Bollinger to Iran, adding, “You can be assured that Iranians are very polite and hospitable toward their guests.”
Ahmadinejad, at the United Nations in New York Tuesday to address the General Assembly, was asked about his reaction to the confrontation at Columbia.
“I think the meeting at the university was sufficiently loud enough to speak for itself. I’m an academic myself,” he said in Farsi, which was translated by the U.N. “I think the authorities and officials of the university should practice a little more listening to other points of view and listen to things they don’t like to hear.”
Iranians see Ahmadinejad as victim
Ahmadinejad’s popularity at home has been suffering, with many Iranians blaming him for failing to fix the faltering economy and for heightening the confrontation with the West with his inflammatory rhetoric.
But in the eyes of many Iranian critics and supporters alike, Ahmadinejad looked like the victim. He complained about Bollinger’s “insults” and “unfriendly treatment” but kept a measured tone throughout the discussion.
“Our president appeared as a gentleman. He remained polite against those who could not remain polite,” said Ahmad Masoudi, a customer at a grocery store who had watched state TV’s recorded version of the event, including Bollinger’s remarks. Iranian Farsi channels did not air the event live.
Another customer in the store, Rasoul Qaresi, said Bollinger showed that even Americans “in a cultural position act like cowboys and nothing more.”
Others thought Bollinger’s words were unseemly for an academic setting. Tehran nurse Mahmoud Rouhi said the president was treated “like a suspect.”
“I don’t know why he stayed there and didn’t leave,” Rouhi said.
In their letter, the university chancellors asked Bollinger to provide responses to 10 questions ranging from: “Why did the U.S. support the bloodthirsty dictator Saddam Hussein” during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, to “Why has the U.S. military failed to find al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, even with all its advanced equipment?”
Protesters decry Iranian leader's visit
Ahmadinejad, visiting New York to speak at the U.N. General Assembly, has been greeted by thousands of protesters, many of them from pro-Israeli groups angered by his previous comments calling for the end of Israel and casting doubt on the Holocaust.
At the Columbia speech, Ahmadinejad fell into the same sort of rhetoric, questioning the official version of the Sept. 11 attacks and defending the right to doubt the Holocaust.
Columbia University faced criticism for hosting Ahmadinejad, and Bollinger had sought to fend off calls for a cancellation of the event by promising to take a tough line with the Iranian president.
Radio criticizes Bollinger's speech
Iran’s state-run radio said Bollinger’s comments were “full of insult, which was mostly Zionists’ propaganda against Iran.”
Ahmadinejad’s visit comes at a time of high tensions between Iran and the U.S. The Bush administration has painted Ahmadinejad as a top enemy of the United States, accusing Tehran of providing weapons that have killed U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran denies the accusations and has stepped up warnings in recent weeks that it would retaliate against Israel and U.S. bases in the region if it comes under attack.
Some critics of Ahmadinejad in Iran warn that U.S. demonizing of the Iranian president has only strengthened his hand and boosted his falling political fortunes.
They make the point that under Iran’s complex governing system, the presidency has far less power than the post of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds final say in state decisions. Ahmadinejad, they say, keeps influence through his image as standing up to the world’s superpower.
A hero for the Middle East?
The harsh words at Columbia “worked in favor of Ahmadinejad, who in the eye of ordinary people was seen as wronged,” said Ahmad Bakhshayesh, a professor of politics in Tehran’s Allameh University.
“The protests by Israel supporters against Ahmadinejad outside the university also helped him to appear as a hero for people of the Middle East,” he said.
Ahmadinejad’s international allies have also taken his side. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is expecting a visit from Ahmadinejad this week, said he spoke by phone with the Iranian leader on Monday after what he called the “ambush” at Columbia.
“I congratulate him, in the name of the Venezuelan people, before a new aggression of the U.S. empire,” Chavez said.