He called for more "research" into the unequivocal facts of the Holocaust, said Iranian women were among the freest in the world, and declared that homosexuality did not exist in his country. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad courts controversy wherever he goes, and his visit to New York last week was no exception. Addressing the UN General Assembly last Tuesday, Iran’s president said he considered the dispute over his country’s nuclear program "closed." Even before his arrival, he had asked—and was denied—permission to lay a wreath at the site of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York.
But it was Ahmadinejad’s appearance last Monday at Columbia University that generated the most press buzz and protests. In a chiding introduction that has since generated sharply divided reactions, university President Lee Bollinger described the Iranian leader as "exhibiting all the signs of a cruel and petty dictator" and condemned his denial of the Holocaust as "either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated."
Ahmadinejad came out swinging, calling Bollinger’s words "insults" and proceeded to deliver a speech to the university’s faculty and students that meandered between a religious sermon and a treatise on science. He repeated provocative statements that at times bordered on the absurd. He remained evasive on questions that ranged from human rights abuses in Iran to his call for Israel to be "wiped from the pages of history," often responding to them with opaque rhetorical questions.
When asked for a one-word answer—"yes or no"—as to whether his government desired the "destruction of Israel as a Jewish state," Ahmadinejad responded: "And then you want the answer the way you want to hear it. Well, this isn’t really a free flow of information. … I’m asking you, is the Palestinian issue not an international issue of prominence or not? Please tell me, yes or no." His answer received laughter and applause.
Ahmadinejad’s visit comes at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and Iran, with the George W. Bush administration pushing the UN Security Council for a third round of economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic for its refusal to shut down its nuclear program. Analysts suggest that the Iranian leader’s meandering monologues and fiery rebuttals are all part of a contest of rhetorical muscle, a classic game of political theater.
"It’s a last bid to divide the West," said Michael Hirsch, a senior editor at Newsweek magazine, during a forum at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He added: "I think it’s generally a good idea when you’re inviting people to your university not to tell them upon arrival that they’re not welcome, because then you look crazier than Ahmadinejad."
Ahmadinejad has used the Khomeinist-inspired rhetoric of the Islamic Revolution to his advantage, playing a widely despised villain in the Western media while pandering to his domestic base and projecting an air of defiance toward U.S. power.
But experts say that the Iranian leader has also drawn heavy domestic criticism for his mismanagement of the Iranian economy, as well as his brash remarks about the Holocaust, comments that, in the long term, threaten to derail any possible improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations.
"I was astonished when I was [in Iran]. I actually had more on-the-record conversations criticizing Ahmadinejad with Iranian politicians and businessmen than I have here in Washington criticizing Bush," said Hirsch.
In one interview with an Iranian newspaper editor, Hirsch said that the editor remarked: "You know, one of the things we say around here is that Bush is your Ahmadinejad."
"They’re similar personalities, both sort of pandering to their conservative religious political base, crudely spoken, not especially masters of their native languages," said Hirsch.
The rhetoric portends an ominous future for the tense standoff between Israel and Iran, which analysts believe is a geo-strategic conflict that is largely being couched in ideological terms.
While it appears the Iranian government has made an explicit effort to bring Israel into the nuclear issue, Ahmadinejad’s comments about the Holocaust have angered many inside Iranian elite foreign policy circles because they distract from the more pressing issues of the country’s security.
"[Ahmadinejad] actually crossed an invisible red line that exists inside Iran’s own internal politics," said Trita Parsi, an Iran specialist and head of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council who also writes for the Inter Press Service.
"Criticizing Israel was never something the Iranians were sensitive about—they’re quite thick-skinned about it to be frank—but talking about the Holocaust was no longer about Israel, and this was something about the entire Jewish experience," he said. "[Ahmadinejad] caused a tremendous amount of anger."
It appears that Israeli politicians are also using the rhetoric to their advantage.
"[Benjamin] Netanyahu, he has a metaphor. It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany, and he goes on to imply that Ahmadinejad is Hitler," said Parsi, referring to the former Israeli prime minister and head of the right-wing Likud bloc in Israel’s Knesset. "If Iran is Germany and Ahmadinejad is Hitler, who in his or her right mind wants to play the part of Neville Chamberlain?"
It remains to be seen what impact Ahmadinejad’s visit will have on the more crucial issues at hand. So far, Iran’s attempts to foment division among the key members of the UN Security Council appear to be working.
Six nations—Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany, and the United States—agreed Friday to delay until November a new resolution that would toughen sanctions against Iran, waiting to see if Tehran cooperates with UN nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei and answers outstanding questions about its disputed nuclear program.
To more discerning critics, Ahmadinejad’s U.S. visit only adds more smoke and mirrors to an already-tangled political situation in the Middle East, one that the United States cannot afford to exacerbate further by militarily confronting Iran.
"The overwhelming tide of opinion that Bush is hearing from the Pentagon is that this would be foolhardy and extreme and result in many repercussions in Iraq," said Hirsch. "Bush knows that Iraq is his legacy, and that has sucked all the oxygen out of the room."
Khody Akhavi is a writer for the Inter Press Service.