The seventh visit of Iran's president to New York is drawing its share of controversy, but the overall public perception seems to be more subdued compared to his previous appearances before the UN General Assembly.
During his 2007 trip, Mahmud Ahmadinejad received the royal treatment from the local media, who followed his steps around the city with meticulous detail. His controversial meeting with students at Columbia University resembled a scene from an action film, with entire blocks of New York City sealed off by police, helicopters hovering above, and hysterical crowds chanting anti-Ahmadinejad slogans.
Nothing of the sort can be seen this time around.
Ahmadinejad addresses the Millennium Development Goals summit
True, there is a devoted group of 40 -- sometimes maybe 50 -- anti-Ahmadinejad protesters on the corner of Second Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan, but New Yorkers hardly seem to have noticed his presence in the city.
This year, Ahmadinejad is actually going to be making his longest stay in New York. If his previous visits were, as a rule, concluded within 72 hours, this time the Iranian president is scheduled to remain for a full five days in the city. He delivered a speech at the high-level meeting on the Millennium Development Goals on September 21 and is scheduled to appear again at the General Assembly general debate on September 23 to outline Tehran’s foreign policy priorities.
Back in Iran, Ahmadinejad’s regular visits to New York have become a subject of notice for his supporters and opponents alike. The president says his personal appearances add credibility to Tehran’s claims that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. But his critics wonder why he has to pay tribute to an institution that has been consistenly toughening economic sanctions against his country.
As are most foreign dignitaries visiting New York on UN business, Ahmadinejad is confined to a 25-mile radius within the city. His several requests in the past to travel outside New York have been denied by the U.S. State Department. So was his request last year to lay a wreath at Ground Zero. Cautiously avoiding a direct commentary on the so-called Ground Zero Mosque controversy, Ahmadinejad said in a TV interview this week that there is no hate between Muslims and Americans.
If there’s one thing that New Yorkers like to grumble about during the monumental UN General Assembly opening sessions, it's the security precautions surrounding the presence of 140 visiting heads of state. Manhattan’s east side often grinds to a halt. And the motorcade carrying around Ahmadinejad rivals that of the U.S. president. To make sure that nothing happens to Ahmadinejad while he is on U.S. soil, the U.S. Secret Service doubles the detail usually assigned to foreign leaders -- from 4 to 12 agents. This is in addition to Ahmadinejad’s own security detail.
Separately, 30 New York City police officers are assigned to protect Ahmadinejad while he is around. The good news is that the cost for his protection does not fall directly on city taxpayers. The U.S. State Department pays the New York Police Department $10 million each year to cover security costs for the opening sessions of the UN General Assembly.
It's not known how much is spent on Ahmadinejad specifically.
-- Nikola Krastev