Although influential politicians and public figures urged the university to cancel the event, hundreds of protesters gathered near the university’s campus, and police in riot gear patrolled the streets. There was no violence, and tensions were resolved peacefully.
Inside the auditorium, it appeared a large number of Ahmadinejad sympathizers were present, as his speech was often interrupted by applause.
In introducing Ahmadinejad to the audience, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger described him as someone who exhibits all the signs of “a petty and cruel dictator” and said that his remarks on the Holocaust, whose existence he has denied in the past, make him look “simply ridiculous.”
Ahmadinejad’s composed demeanor during his 90-minute presentation was at times in stark contrast with previous behavior the West has come to see as irrational and insulting. This time, Ahmadinejad did not question the existence of the Holocaust, but only said “more research is needed.” He did, however, cast doubt on the official account of the events of 9/11, predictably drawing the ire of the audience.
Few Direct Answers
His introductory remarks -- a strange preaching about God and the virtues of scientific research -- was peppered with quotes from the Bible, as well as from the Koran.
Ahmadinejad’s main message was that man should preserve the “purity of spirit” during ordeals. Later in his speech he spoke about oppressive regimes using bacteriological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, and about the plight of the Palestinians in Israel.
"You should know that according to the Iranian Constitution, there is one MP for 150,000 persons, while for the Jews -- who are only one-fifth of that number -- there is one independent MP," he said. "Our suggestion for solving the 60-year-old problem of Palestine is a humanitarian, democratic solution: Let the Palestinian people choose their own destiny themselves. This is in accordance with the UN Charter."
Ahmadinejad continued, "Let the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Palestinians decide about their future themselves. Let there be a free referendum. Do not let anyone interfere in Palestinian people’s affairs. Do not let anyone create discord. Do not let anyone sell billions of dollars of weaponry to some others. We say let the Palestinians choose their own destiny themselves."
During the question-and-answer session, the Iranian president avoided giving direct answers to questions he did not like, or responded with a question of his own.
Asked why his government provides aid to terrorists, as is alleged by the West, he said, "I want to ask you a question. If someone plants a bomb and assassinates your president, the cabinet members and members of the Congress, what will you do? Will you reward him or call him a terrorist? Of course, you will call him a terrorist."
Trying to appeal to -- or maybe to appease -- Columbia students, Ahmadinejad spoke in detail about his own academic pursuits. He emphasized the fact that he continues to lecture to students in Tehran.
The Holocaust 'Happened'
On the question of Holocaust -- which in this venue he did not deny, as he has many times before -- he said, “Granted, it happened,” but insisted that more research is needed to determine what exactly happened.
"I am an academic, just like you. Can you say that a research about a subject is finished? Can you say that research about history is finished? Well, each research adds a new dimension. Why should research be prevented?"
Asked about the execution of homosexuals in Iran, Ahmadinejad drew derisive laughter from the audience when he said, "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country. ... In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have this."
Some students in the audience, like Dale Stahl, a 28-year old doctoral student of history, took issue with Bollinger’s harsh introduction and said that because Ahmadinejad was democratically elected, Bollinger should not have made such a personal attack. Stahl said, “Our own president [Bollinger] could’ve perhaps been less personal in his attacks on him. I think that if you are going to bring a head of state to a university -- a personal attack is not necessarily a conducive way to begin a conversation.”
Jewish students in the audience, like Alex Port, a third-year biology student, were more supportive of the school president’s comments.
“In terms of Ahmadinejad, I think that Bollinger issued a very, very strong challenge to him," Port said. "And in his typical fashion, he dodges questions because he can’t answer to his other statements, you know. He is a polemicist, and he can’t answer for himself.”
Ahmadinejad's invitation to appear at Columbia University sparked a wider debate beyond the campus about whether he should have been allowed to speak. Many Americans believe Ahmadinejad's government not only abuses the human rights of its own citizens but also is helping arm Shi'as in neighboring Iraq who may use those weapons against U.S. troops.
Walter Berns, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute -- a private policy-research center in Washington -- specializes in political philosophy and U.S. constitutional law. He calls Ahmadinejad "contemptible" and said that by allowing him to speak, Columbia bestowed false importance on him.
But John Samples, who studies the U.S. Constitution at the Cato Institute, another Washington think tank, said the only speech that can be muzzled in the United States is speech that puts people in direct peril. In Ahmadinejad's case, Samples said, the speech could have been canceled if it became known it was to be full of hateful invective or otherwise encouraged civil unrest. But the only overt reaction to his appearance was a series of protests, which Samples called simply "speech against speech."
Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia was part of the university’s annual World Leaders Forum. Among other prominent participants this year are the presidents of Chile, Georgia, Estonia, and Turkmenistan.
RFE/RL Washington correspondent Andrew F. Tully contributed to this story