Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran Leader Meets Furor, and Thrives

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran Leader Meets Furor, and Thrives

Article excerpt

If Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is searching for a souvenir from his sojourn this week to the Big Apple, he might consider an "I Love New York" T-shirt. No other town, after all, gives the firebrand bad boy of Western-Islamic relations the platforms, the polemics, and the attention that Iran experts say he craves. These far outstrip, experts add, the authority and influence he actually wields, since Mr. Ahmadinejad does not have the power of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In the limelight, Ahmadinejad has been a man under attack - from the outcry that followed the Iranian leader's proposal earlier this month to lay a wreath at ground zero, to the condemnation that met him at Columbia University Monday, to the scrutiny given his speech at the United Nations Tuesday.

According to specialists in Iranian affairs, he couldn't have asked for more.

"He is loving this, just absolutely loving it," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The fact is that he is not by any means the all-powerful leader in Iran, so this feeds his conviction that he is at the center of the universe."

When Ahmadinejad, whose country is listed by the US as a state sponsor of terror, asked to visit the site of the 9/11 attacks, members of Congress were quick to protest. And when Columbia President Lee Bollinger - himself under attack for accepting on his campus a leader who has denied the existence of the Holocaust - introduced his guest by calling him a "petty and cruel dictator," Ahmadinejad didn't miss a beat. He ad-libbed an "I am shocked, shocked!" routine.

In his unorthodox introduction, Mr. Bollinger listed the reasons Ahmadinejad is held in such contempt here, including:

* His denials of the Holocaust and call for the destruction of the state of Israel.

* His "reported" support for Iranian-sponsored terrorism, and most recently for Iran's alleged provision of training for Shiite militias in Iraq and explosive devices targeting US troops there.

* Iran's defiance of the UN Security Council in the pursuit of its nuclear program.

* The Iranian government's suppression of academics and civil society, and its handling of the rights of women and minorities, including gays.

* The government's imprisonment of journalists and scholars, including Columbia alumnus Kian Tajbakhsh - whom Bollinger challenged Ahmadinejad to allow to leave Iran so he could assume a teaching position next semester at Columbia.

For his part, Ahmadinejad spoke at length about science as a gift "from the divine," about the long years of American support for the Iranian people's enemies (read the late shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War), and about six decades of the West's trampling of the rights of the Palestinians.

Ahmadinejad drew particularly loud howls of derision from the largely student audience when he dismissed a question about the oppression of homosexuals in Iran by claiming, "We do not have this phenomenon [of homosexuality]. …

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