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Iran's President Causes Stir at Columbia

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush is addressing the United Nations General Assembly this morning. He is expected to unveil more sanctions against Myanmar, formerly Burma, for its crackdown on dissent. He may also talk about Iran as the U.S. tries to push for more United Nation Security Council sanctions to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Iran's president has already weighed in on that issue during a tense exchange with students and faculty at Columbia University yesterday afternoon. He denied his country wants to build a nuclear bomb and complained that big powers, mainly the U.S., think they have a right to monopolize science.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Columbia University President Lee Bollinger faced a lot of criticism for giving Iran's president a platform to speak. But he quickly won over the crowd when, rather than introducing the Iranian leader, he laid into him for denying the Holocaust, questioning Israel's right to exist, supporting terrorist groups in the Middle East, and jailing dissidents.

LEE BOLLINGER: Let's then be clear at the beginning. Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.

KELEMEN: Bollinger went on to say that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust suggests that he's either bracingly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.

Gary Sick, a Columbia University professor, was sitting in the front row and says from the start this was a gloves off sort of discussion.

GARY SICK: The good side of that, I think, is that Ahmadinejad probably has never heard that kind of real emotional reaction, sort of carried out to his face.

KELEMEN: Ahmadinejad smiled all the way through the introduction. But when he took the podium, he made clear that Iranians treat guests with more respect not with insults.

The moderator, another Columbia professor, tried to pin down the Iranian leader on issues ranging from Iran's nuclear program to one about Israel. Does Iran seek the destruction of the Jewish state? Speaking through an interpreter Ahmadinejad said, the future of the region should be determined by Palestinians.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: (Through translator) What we say is that to solve this 60-year problem, we must allow the Palestinian people to decide about its future for its itself.

KELEMEN: Iran's president also defended his right to question the Holocaust, saying this should be an issue open for further research. As for Iran's nuclear program, he says, it's peaceful and should not be subject to sanctions.

AHMADINEJAD: (Through translator) So we're quite clear what we need. If you have created the fifth generation of atomic bombs and are testing them already, what position are you into question the peaceful purposes of other people who want nuclear power? We - do not believe in nuclear weapons, period, it goes against the whole grain of humanity.

KELEMEN: Ahmadinejad often answered a question with another question, frustrating many in the audience, but he did get lots of laughs at one point when he was defending Iran's human rights record and answering a question about the execution of homosexuals.

AHMADINEJAD: (Through translator) In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KELEMEN: Columbia University sophomore Emily Steinberger said it was with those words that he lost credibility, if he had any, in this audience.

EMILY STEINBERGER: I don't think anything came out of it that - I mean, if I have to look for it, it would be that we now see and realize that he's a meaningless leader who's very dangerous, but I don't think that giving him this audiences now will do anything in terms of our understanding of what's going on in Iran and the academic discourse revolving around that.

KELEMEN: Others, too, said they were disappointed he wasn't more straightforward, but that's what Columbia's president said he expected when he introduced the Iranian leader. Bollinger said, quote, "I doubt you will have the intellectual courage to answer questions but avoiding them will be meaningful as well.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, New York.

MONTAGNE: Read about other moments in history when controversial figures came to the U.N. at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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