New York: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad kicks off his third visit to the United States on 14 Sept, with two public appearances that have kicked up a storm of controversy and sparked angry protests.
The firebrand Iranian leader, who has called for the destruction of Israel and questioned the Holocaust, was to address the National Press Club in Washington by video-conference and to later speak at Columbia University. He is due to address the United Nations General Assembly on 25 Sept.
The Iranian leader said before leaving Tehran that the visit would allow him to meet independent politicians from Tehran’s arch foe and give Iran a platform to address the international community.
“The General Assembly of the United Nations is a good opportunity to present the solutions of the Iranian people to solve the problems of the world,” he was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency.
“We need to take advantage of such opportunities to present the positions of the Iranian people as they (the Americans) are very keen to hear them.”
Resistance to Iran going nuclear
The visit has sparked bitter controversy in the United States, which has accused Iran of trying to acquire nuclear weapons and considers the Iranian leader an ally of insurgents attacking US troops deployed in Iraq.
Speaking in an interview with CBS television conducted in Tehran last week Ahmadinejad downplayed Iran’s nuclear ambitions and said that there was no reason to think that the United States and Iran were on a path to war.
“You have to appreciate we don’t need a nuclear bomb. It’s wrong to think that Iran and the US are walking towards war,” he emphasized.
No diplomatic ties between Iran and US since 1979
His trip comes at a low point in relations between Iran and the United States, which have not had formal diplomatic ties since 1979.
Even before he arrived, city politicians and Jewish groups mounted protests against the visit, urging Columbia University to withdraw its invitation to the Iranian leader.
Around 100 protesters gathered outside the university’s main gate bearing placards with slogans such as “Don’t give a platform to hate,” and denouncing Ahmadinejad as a “Hitler wannabe” and a Holocaust denier.
Protestors react violently
“There is no excuse to invite this madman, this little Hitler,” said New York assemblyman Dov Hikind, who counts Holocaust survivors among his constituents. “This is immoral, outrageous, sick.”
Protesters were due to mount further rallies at Columbia on Monday and Iranian opposition exiles were to demonstrate at the United Nations on Tuesday while Ahmadinejad addresses the world body.
Columbia’s president Lee Bollinger, however, defended the decision to invite Ahmadinejad, saying the university “as a community dedicated to learning and scholarship, is committed to confronting ideas.”
Bollinger said he would introduce the event and challenge Ahmadinejad’s comments on the Holocaust, his calls for the destruction of Israel and Tehran’s pursuit of a nuclear programme in the face of international opposition.
Permission denied to lay a wreath at Ground Zero in New York
What angered many New Yorkers more than anything was Ahmadinejad’s plan to lay a wreath at Ground Zero -- the site of the September 11 attacks of 2001. City officials denied permission for the visit last week on security grounds.
President George W Bush offered support to city officials, saying: “I can understand why they would not want somebody running a country who is the state sponsor of terror down at the site.”
And while Ahmadinejad told CBS he would not insist on visiting the site if city officials could not arrange it, foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini suggested a visit to Ground Zero was still on the itinerary.
The United States is obliged by diplomatic convention and as host of the United Nations to allow representatives of member states to visit areas within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of the world body’s New York headquarters.