(photo credit: AP)
Barred by police from visiting Ground Zero, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may find more of a welcome at Columbia University, where he has been cleared to speak on Monday at the school's annual World Leaders Forum despite outrage expressed by New York area Jewish leaders.
Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has vowed to used a planned question and answer session to challenge Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust, call to destroy Israel and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The New York Police Department Wednesday denied a request by Ahmadinejad to tour the site of the 9/11 disaster during his visit to New York for the start of the UN General Assembly's 62nd Session. The Iranian president is due to arrive in the city on Sunday.
A slew of US diplomats, and presidential candidates blasted a request by Ahmadinejad to "lay a wreath" at Ground Zero as an attempt to turn the site into a "photo op."
New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly initially caused confusion, after announcing the Iranian president's request without saying whether the police department would allow the visit. Later Kelly rejected the request because of ongoing construction at the site, though it remains unclear whether police would be able to legally prevent Ahmadinejad from visiting the area.
The US has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980, and members of the Iranian Mission are limited to travelling within a 40-kilometer radius of Columbus Circle in Midtown Manhattan. However, Ground Zero falls well within that radius.
Getting to speak at Columbia proved far easier, however, with the university agreeing to a request by the Iranian Mission to the UN for Ahmadinejad to speak on campus Monday.
"Opportunities to hear, challenge, and learn from controversial speakers of different views are central to the education and training of students for citizenship in a shrinking and dangerous world," the dean of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), John Coatsworth, said in a statement. Ahmadinejad will open a series of lectures and events about Iran.
Bollinger is scheduled to introduce Ahmadinejad to an audience that will be made up exclusively of Columbia students, faculty and a few invited guests.
In a statement released Wednesday, Bollinger said it is a "critical" premise of freedom of speech "that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices."
"It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas, or our naivetÃ© about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas," said Bollinger.
Bollinger agreed to host Ahmadinejad under the condition that he divide his time equally between delivering remarks and responding to audience questions.
Bollinger said he will pose a series of "challenges" that include the Iranian president's denial of the Holocaust; his public call for the destruction of the state of Israel; his reported support for international terrorism that targets innocent civilians and American troops; Iran's pursuit of nuclear ambitions in opposition to international sanction; his government's widely documented suppression of civil society and particularly of women's rights; and his government's imprisoning of journalists and scholars, including one of Columbia's own alumni, Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh.
One year ago, after initially okaying a request by Ahmadinejad to speak on campus, Columbia University later withdrew the offer.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, hopes Columbia will withdraw again.
Hoenlein wrote Bollinger Wednesday: "While I respect academic freedom and the importance of diverse views being heard, it would not violate those principles to deny a platform to someone who persecutes his people, denies freedom of speech in his own country, violates the UN Charter with threats to destroy other states, and is the leading state sponsor of terror," he wrote.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti Defamation League, called Columbia's decision a "perversion of the First Amendment." "If Bollinger wants to communicate with him let him send him a letter; there's no imperative to let him speak," said Foxman.
The Conference of Presidents is sponsoring a protest to take place outside the UN on Monday, when Ahmadinejad is scheduled to speak at the General Assembly.
Likewise, the Columbia-Barnard Hillel is organizing a demonstration to take place on the Columbia campus. It hopes to include a wide range of campus groups, including those that promote women's rights, the rights of gays and lesbians, and diverse political and cultural bodies.
In a related development, Ali Reza Moaiyeri, who heads Iran's mission to the United Nations in Geneva, was denied entry to the United States because of allegations he was among those who held American diplomats hostage for 444 days shortly after Iran's revolution.
Moaiyeri had wanted to attend next week's ministerial meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York.
However, Iranian diplomats rejected the US assertions. "He was never and in no way part of the group of students who took the US embassy," Kourosh Ahmadi of the Iranian mission in Geneva told The Associated Press.