Accessibility links

Breaking News

Ahmadinejad's Performance Gets Mixed Reaction From Iranians

Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia University in New York on September 24 (RFE/RL) September 25, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Conservative politicians in Iran today began to align themselves with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad following his high-profile appearance at an academic conference in New York on September 24. Other Iranian reaction to the outspoken leader's first day in the United States has been slow to emerge, but early signs suggest Ahmadinejad is unlikely to have bridged any divides.

Iranian state television today broadcast nearly an hour of Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia University's World Leaders Forum, although it was initially unclear whether there were edits or omissions.

Ahmadinejad used the forum to rebut claims that his country is pursuing nuclear weapons, saying, "I think the politicians who are after atomic bombs, or testing them, making them, politically they are backward, retarded."

He "granted" that the Holocaust "happened," but said that it required "further research." He also urged greater scrutiny of the "root causes" of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 -- including "why it happened, what caused it, what were the conditions that led to it, [and] who truly was involved, who was really involved."

Speaking with Radio Farda from Tehran following the broadcast, former Tehran University Chancellor Mohammad Maleki responded to Ahmadinejad's appearance by questioning his credentials in seeking to portray himself as a spokesman for broadly held views.

"If he is right when he says he's expressing people's views, then he should start from our Iran, since several years ago a number of Iranian personalities called for a free referendum to be held in Iran," Maleki said. "The question [would be]: Do people want this establishment and the current constitution or not?"

Conservatives Back President Against 'Zionists'

Unsurprisingly, early reactions from conservative elements in Iran reflected support for Ahmadinejad and his Columbia University appearance.

Hard-line lawmakers praised the president's performance and decried what they dismissed as the "Zionist" influence that was aligned against him.

Demonstrators outside Columbia University (RFE/RL)

Iran's international English-language broadcaster, Press TV, quoted the head of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, as saying the event allowed Ahmadinejad to "provide the public with accurate information." He said the audience was allowed access to Iranian positions without interference from what he described as the "Zionist"-controlled U.S. media.

Borujerdi said that "incoming reports" suggested "there were more pro-Ahmadinejad people [at] the session than people against him," although a report in "The New York Times" claimed the opposite was true.

Borujerdi also chided Columbia University President Lee Bollinger for his blunt criticism of Ahmadinejad, saying he had "degraded himself" through statements that were unsuitable for an academic and host.

Bollinger used his remarks to challenge Ahmadinejad's questioning of the Holocaust and his incendiary remarks about Israel. The Columbia president called Ahmadinejad's behavior reminiscent of "a petty and cruel dictator," and said his comments signaled he was either "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated."

Another legislator, Kazem Jalali, echoed Ahmadinejad's perception that the Iranian president had been "insulted" by the Columbia president, blaming a "Zionist lobby" and U.S. neoconservative elements for Bollinger's comments.

Some Iranians Skeptical Of Trip

Early reactions from outside official Iran suggested skepticism of Ahmadinejad's motives to speak at Columbia.

Alireza Nurizadeh, a London-based journalist who is currently in New York, told Radio Farda that he thinks the September 24 appearances -- by video link with the National Press Club and in person at Columbia -- marked high-profile failures for Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad "was able to speak in a free atmosphere," Nurizadeh said. "A White house spokesman has said that he hopes that Iranian people will also one day be able to speak freely. Finally, we have to say that Ahmadinejad in two confrontations -- one with the press, the other with students -- failed badly and this failure will remain in his record."

An Internet user who identified himself as Kian from Kermanshah wrote to Radio Farda to say that he thought the U.S. authorities "should have never given Ahmadinejad a visa to enter the U.S.!" He added, "Ahmadinejad only wants to appear on cameras and gain supporters."

Another message to Farda, from Saeed in Sweden, accused the Iranian president of simply trying to "use his trip for propaganda in Iran to say that he's reached success with courage in the land of the enemy."

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

SUBSCRIBE For regular news and analysis on Iran by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Iran Report."