Iran's president got a frosty reception during a rare public appearance at an American university Monday. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the less-than-warm welcome came from an unexpected quarter.
Protesters were kept well away from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his visit to Columbia University in New York. But there was one protester he could not avoid: the university's president, Lee Bollinger.
In blistering opening remarks, the university leader, who had been criticized for inviting President Ahmadinejad to speak, lashed out at the Iranian president for his government's record on human rights, support of terrorism, denial of the Holocaust, and the threat to eliminate Israel.
"We at this university have not been shy to protest and challenge the failures of our own government to live by our values, and we won't be shy about criticizing yours. Let's then be clear at the beginning: Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," Bollinger said.
Mr. Ahmadinejad seemed taken aback by the harsh words from Bollinger. "Many parts of his speech, there were many insults and claims that were incorrect, regretfully. Of course, I think that he was affected by the press, the media, and the political, sort of, mainstream line that you read here that goes against the very grain of the need for peace and stability in the world around us," he said.
In an address similar to an earlier one he gave by teleconference to the National Press Club, President Ahmadinejad focused first on religion. He then accused Western powers of misusing science to political ends.
"They deceive people by using scientific methods and tools. They, in fact, wish to justify their own wrongdoings, though. By creating nonexistent enemies, for example, and an insecure atmosphere, they try to control all in the name of combating insecurity and terrorism," he said.
University president Bollinger labeled the Iranian leader "either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated" for denying the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews.
During a lengthy question and answer session after the address, the Iranian president said he was not outright denying the Holocaust but was only calling for more research on it. But he was evasive when asked if he favors Israel's destruction.
President Ahmadinejad denied Iran seeks nuclear weapons, but said his country has the right to reprocess its own nuclear fuel to provide electric power. However, he downplayed any talk of war over the issue.
The Iranian leader was asked about the alleged executions of homosexuals in Iran. He sparked laughter from the audience when he denied they exist in his country.
"In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country. We don't have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it," he said.
Asked about Iran's support for terrorist groups, Mr. Ahmadinejad turned the question around and accused the U.S. of backing terrorist groups that he alleged train in Iraq to launch attacks in Iran. The reference is apparently to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, a group linked to attacks inside Iran. The group is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist groups.