- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2007

NEW YORK — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday plunged into an openly hostile audience at Columbia University, defying Zionist groups, Iranian expatriates and anti-nuclear activists to defend his government’s nuclear program and its antipathy toward Israel.

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Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose invitation to speak to Columbia students proved even more controversial than his scheduled address to the U.N. General Assembly today, almost accepted that Israel has a right to exist, but insisted that Iranian homosexuals do not.

“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 in response to a student’s query about why so many Iranian homosexuals have been put to death.

In a question-and-answer period that drew applause, boos and even laughter, Mr. Ahmadinejad maintained that Iran did not need nuclear weapons, denounced the source of the Palestinian people’s “60-year-old wound” and defended his aborted ground zero visit as an opportunity to pay his respects to the victims of September 11 and their families.

Mr. Ahmadinejad seemed to acknowledge the Holocaust offhandedly.

“I’m not saying it didn’t happen. I said, ‘Granted this happened, what does it have to do with the Palestinian people?’ ” he said through an interpreter, in an apparent suggestion that the West justifies the suffering of the Palestinians with the plight of the millions of Jews that perished in the Holocaust.

“We love all nations,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said. “We love the Jewish people.”

But he also suggested that it is too early to make conclusions about the Holocaust.

“Can you argue that researching a phenomenon is finished forever, done? Can we close the books for good on a historical event? There are different perspectives that come to light after every research is done,” he said.

“Given that the Holocaust is a present reality of our time, a history that occurred, why is there not sufficient research that can approach the topic from different perspectives?” he asked.

In a pattern familiar from his visit to New York last year, Mr. Ahmadinejad repeatedly responded to questions from the audience with his own questions.

“I want to pose a question here to you,” he said when asked when his government will stop supporting terrorism. “If someone comes and explodes bombs around you, threatens your president, members of the administration, kills the members of the Senate or Congress, how would you treat them?”

He added: “Our nation has been harmed by terrorist activities. We were the first nation that objected to terrorism and the first to uphold the need to fight terrorism.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad, who also defended Iran’s nuclear program and not surprisingly insisted it was peaceful, was startled by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger’s introductory remarks, which were marked by the kind of harsh language one rarely hears in either diplomacy or academia.

The white-maned academic, surely amping his skepticism in response to a week’s worth of vilifying editorials, roasted Mr. Ahmadinejad’s widely reported denial of the Holocaust as “brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.”

In defending Columbia’s decision to invite the Iranian leader to speak, Mr. Bollinger said: “Mr. Ahmadinejad, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” a line that drew sustained applause.

Before inviting Mr. Ahmadinejad to the podium, Mr. Bollinger criticized Iran’s repudiation of Israel and its appalling human rights record, telling him, “I expect you to exhibit the fanatical mind-set” people have come to expect of him.

The audience cheered, but Mr. Ahmadinejad chastised “the dear gentleman” for “insulting” the intelligence of his audience.

“At the outset, I want to complain about this person who read this thing about me,” said Mr. Ahmadinejad, noting that in his country guests are better respected.

“I don’t think it is necessary, before the speech has been given, to come in with claims. The text read by the dear gentleman was not an insult to me,” the Iranian president said, “but to the people here.”

Many of the students in the audience said they were impressed by what they heard.

“He was a lot more charismatic than I expected,” said Nicole Ireland, a well-traveled journalism student. “He certainly is adept at getting his own message across. But there were not as many human rights questions as I’d expected.”

Earlier in the day during a videoconference at the National Press Club, the Iranian leader attempted to clarify previous comments he has made that Iran would be ready to fill the “power vacuum” in the Middle East if the United States withdraws from Iraq.

He said Tehran supported a strong, stable government in Iraq and said his point was that Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and other countries in the region did not need the United States to provide security.

“We think that regional countries themselves know how to run the affairs of the region best,” he said. “They don’t need a guardian from outside to tell them how to do it.”

David R. Sands in Washington contributed to this report.

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