When not dodging direct questions, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was defiant in his answers at a forum Monday at Columbia University, maintaining that his country seeks nuclear power only for peaceful purposes, that continued research is necessary to determine the facts of the Holocaust, that Iran is not supporting insurgents in Iraq and that women in his country are treated equally.
Despite fears from some that the controversial leader would go unchallenged in his comments, Columbia President Lee Bollinger quickly took the Iranian president to task in his opening statements, calling him "a petty and cruel dictator" and pointing to a number of well-documented instances in which the Iranian regime has executed children, oppressed women and imprisoned and tortured homosexuals, academics and journalists.
"I doubt you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions," Bollinger said ahead of the Ahmadinejad's comments. "I do expect you to exhibit a fanatical mind-set."
Bollinger called Ahmadinejad's previous statements questioning the existence of the Holocaust "preposterous and ridiculous comments."
Ahmadinejad parried many of the questions put to him directly, discussing the plight of the Palestinians rather than directly answering a question about his previous calls for the destruction of the state of Israel.
When asked about the death penalty Iran imposed on homosexuals, Ahmadinejad discussed the death sentence for drug smugglers. When pushed by moderator and acting dean of the School of International and Public Affairs John Coatsworth, the Iranian president said: "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who has told you we have that."
Ahmadinejad insisted that Iran was seeking nuclear technology solely for the purpose of creating a peaceful energy program and not in an effort to create weapons.
He called the world powers -- the United States, France, Great Britain, China and Russia -- opposed to Iran's nuclear program "monopolistic, selfish powers."
"Why," he asked, "can you have this right and we cannot? We have a right to peaceful nuclear power."
Ahmadinejad, dressed in a dark gray suit rather than his signature khaki jacket, further denied that Iran had funded or aided insurgents in Iraq responsible for the deaths of U.S. troops.
"If someone comes and explodes bombs around you and threatens your president, administration and Congress, it is clear you would call them a terrorist. The Iranian nation is a victim of terror," he said.
Students said their opinions of the Iranian president changed little after hearing him speak, with those opposed to his presence and those in support of his policies each picking selective quotes from his address to buttress already established feelings.
Though in most circles Ahmadinejad is criticized chiefly for his positions on the Holocaust, Israel, nuclear weapons and suspected support of terror, his denial of the existence and mistreatment of gays in Iran was the one that left students students buzzing.
"Despite differences in the use of certain Western terms and potential errors in translation, he clearly knew what was being asked and what was going on," said Crystal Gonzalez, 20, an economics major and spokeswoman for the Columbia Queer Alliance.