Iranian leader seeks to cool talk of war
By Daniel Dombey in Washington and Harvey Morris at the United Nations and Daniel Pimlott in New York
Published: September 24 2007 21:47 | Last updated: September 25 2007 00:07
Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president, kicked off his trip to the United Nations and New York on Monday by denouncing protesters against his visit and discounting talk of war with the US.
His arrival was hailed by one US tabloid as “The Evil Has Landed”, and he was likened to a “petty and cruel dictator” by Lee Bollinger, Columbia University’s president, at a controversial speaking engagement at the university.
But despite the barrage of hostile questions, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad was confident and combative – if not precise.
“In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country,” he said after being asked about the death penalty for homosexual behaviour. “I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.”
He also said Iran had the “freest people in the world”, seeking to contrast his country’s standards with the complaints in the US against his own visit.
“I’m surprised that in a place that claims to have freedom of information, they are trying to prevent people from talking,” he said at the US’s National Press Club before his visit to Columbia. “That’s not good.”
He believed that the backlash against his visit had been provoked by “pro-[US] government members of the press”, and complained that the New York authorities had not permitted him to visit Ground Zero, site of the attacks of September 11 2001. “I was interested in expressing my sympathy to the victims of that tragedy,” he said.
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s movements have excited a furious response from some Americans.
“Columbia is basically sponsoring the kick-off concert for Ahmadi-Nejad’s ‘Death to America’ tour,” said Peter Johnson, a former senior research fellow at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.
President George W. Bush said: “He’s the head of a state sponsor of terror...and yet an institution in our country gives him a chance to express his point of view, which really speaks to the freedom of the country.”
Despite protesters outside, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad was frequently applauded during his appearance at Columbia; however, so were some of the hostile questions levelled at him. “In Iran when you invite a guest you respect him,” Mr Ahmadi-Nejad said, complaining about the introductory remarks by Mr Bollinger, which the Iranian president described as an “insult”.
He denied that Iran sponsored terrorism, arguing: “We don’t need to resort to terrorism; we have been victims of terrorism.” But he refused to give a simple answer to whether Iran sought the destruction of Israel, saying instead that Palestinians should be asked in a referendum what they wanted for the future.
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad also insisted there should be more “research” on the Holocaust. “Can we close the books for good on a historical event?” he asked.
“It made Columbia look pretty stupid,” said Fergus Scully, a student at Columbia, referring to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s comment about homosexuals. “It’s insulting when a speaker is invited for debate and rational discussion, and he isn’t rational. We were spoken to like a child.”
At the National Press Club, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad also played down talk of war.
Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, said last week that the world should prepare for the worst in the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme and said “the worst is war”, although he subsequently softened the tone of his remarks.
“The talk of war is basically a propaganda tool...Why is there a need for war?” Mr Ahmadi-Nejad said. “Give the foreign minister more experience in his new post, and then he can talk with a higher level of maturity.”
“There’s no war in the offing,” he had earlier told the CBS network. “It’s wrong to think that Iran and the US are walking towards war.”
On Monday he rejected repeated claims by the US military that Iran was smuggling weapons into Iraq.
“We think the military should seek an answer to its defeat in Iraq elsewhere,” he said. “Are you telling me that the US military is defeated by two or three weapons like these?”
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is to address the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly on Tuesday to try to assure member states that Iran’s nuclear programme is peaceful.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
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