NEW YORK — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, facing protests and tabloid headlines calling him “evil” and a “madman,” stirred debate today about free speech ahead of his appearance at Columbia University.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger has promised to grill Ahmadinejad on subjects such as human rights, the Holocaust and Iran’s disputed nuclear program. The Iranian leader previously has called the Holocaust “a myth” and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”
Bollinger said today it was a question of free speech and academic freedom.
“It’s extremely important to know who the leaders are of countries that are your adversaries. To watch them to see how they think, to see how they reason or do not reason. To see whether they’re fanatical, or to see whether they are sly,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Ahmadinejad is to speak and answer questions at a Columbia forum today, followed by a scheduled address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday.
The New York Daily News’ front page today read: “THE EVIL HAS LANDED.” The New York Post called Ahmadinejad the “Madman Iran Prez” and a “guest of dishonor.”
Tensions are high between Washington and Tehran over U.S. accusations that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons, as well as helping Shiite militias in Iraq that target U.S. troops — claims Iran denies.
“Well, you have to appreciate we don’t need a nuclear bomb. We don’t need that. What need do we have for a bomb?” Ahmadinejad said in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired Sunday, taped earlier in Iran. “In political relations right now, the nuclear bomb is of no use. If it was useful it would have prevented the downfall of the Soviet Union.”
He also said that: “It’s wrong to think that Iran and the U.S. are walking toward war. Who says so? Why should we go to war? There is no war in the offing.”
Before leaving Iran, Ahmadinejad said the American people have been denied “correct information,” and his visit will give them a chance to hear a different voice, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Ahmadinejad has appealed to the American people before, distinguishing between the population and their government. Recently, he told a television show that Iran wants peace and friendship with America. Since coming to power in 2005, Ahmadinejad also has sent letters to the American people criticizing President Bush’s policies in the Middle East.
Washington has said it is addressing the Iran situation diplomatically, rather than militarily, but U.S. officials also say that all options are open. The commander of the U.S. military forces in the Middle East said he did not believe tensions will lead to war.
“This constant drum beat of conflict is what strikes me, which is not helpful and not useful,” Adm. William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television, which made a partial transcript available Sunday.
Ahmadinejad’s scheduled address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday will be his third time attending the New York meeting in three years.
But his request to lay a wreath at ground zero was denied by city officials and condemned by politicians who said a visit to the site of the 2001 terror attacks would violate sacred ground.
Police cited construction and security concerns in denying Ahmadinejad’s request. Ahmadinejad told “60 Minutes” he would not press the issue but expressed disbelief that the visit would offend Americans.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, hundreds of young Iranians held a series of candlelight vigils in Tehran.
“Usually you go to these sites to pay your respects. And also to perhaps air your views about the root causes of such incidents,” Ahmadinejad told the network.
Columbia canceled a planned visit by the Iranian president last year, also citing security and logistical reasons.
At the protests, New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind said Ahmadinejad “should be arrested when he comes to Columbia University, not invited to speak for God’s sake.”
Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York is also being debated back home. Some in Iran think his trip is a publicity stunt that hurts Iran’s image in the world.
Political analyst Iraj Jamshidi said Ahmadinejad looks at the General Assembly as a publicity forum simply to surprise world leaders with his harsh rhetoric.
“The world has not welcomed Ahmadinejad’s hardline approach. His previous address to the assembly didn’t resolve any of Iran’s foreign policy issues. And no one expects anything better this time,” he said.
But conservative lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi said it was a good chance for Iran to air its position.
“This trip gives the president a good chance to meet world leaders and inform them of Iran’s rightful position,” IRNA quoted Boroujerdi as saying.
Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.
A small group of protesters gather outside Columbia University on Sunday to protest plans for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on campus today. The demonstration was organized by New York City Council Member David Weprin.