Sept. 24, 2007 — -- 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.
"At first I wasn't sure about what I thought about him coming, but I think it was a good thing that he did and could spark a debate. … He is clearly a master of avoiding questions," she said, adding, "we disapprove and condemn much of what he said."
Though some of the university's Iranian student body declared themselves pro-Ahmadinejad, others took a more measured position, reproaching the president's human rights policies while also reserving criticism for the Bush administration.
"There is no doubt that the current government is disrespectful of human rights, but war is not an answer," said David Trilling, 29, speaking on behalf of the Iranian students at the School for International and Public Affairs, which hosted the event. "Nearly all of us," he said, "do not accept the comments of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."
Other students saved criticism for Bollinger, who condemned many of the Iranian leader's earlier comments in his opening statement.
"Yes, he skirted some of the issues," said senior statistics and political science major Max Bulinski of the Iranian leader, "but I believe he believed much of what he said."
"I think it was a mistake for Bollinger to attack him before he was given a chance to speak. Ahmadinejad was right to say he should have been given the chance to let people form their own opinions."
Those who opposed the president before he spoke found much in his speech to oppose afterward.
"Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hid behind rhetoric and philosophical musings about wisdom and knowledge," said Esther Lifshitz, a sophomore majoring in political science.
"This wasn't a dialogue; it was a forum for him to say whatever he wanted. Our podium didn't need to be tarnished by his presence."
Protests at Columbia's Morningside Heights campus were measured but calm Monday in the moments leading up to Ahmadinejad's speech.
Students were peacefully posting signs and banners but not confronting one another ahead of Ahmadinejad's speech. As they gathered around the iconic statue of Alma Mater in the center of the campus to listen to a slate of diverse student speakers, other protesters, outside and barred from entering the campus, began to gather.
Though the tenor outside the campus was more heated and more colorful, protests and debate still remained peaceful as the police presence nearly matched the number of protesters.
Outside, along Broadway, professional protesters squared off.
"Ahmadinejad is the Iranian Hitler and Columbia President [Lee] Bollinger must go," shouted Mordecai Levy, president of the Jewish Defense Organization.
The Iranian president's presence invited comparisons to President Bush by a number of activist organizations, which used the opportunity not to protest against Ahmadinejad's human rights record but against the war in Iraq.
"Ahmadinejad's speech comes at a time the U.S. is proposing war in Iran," said Sunsara Taylor of Revolution Newspaper before a large crowd of reporters. "Bush is using Ahmadinejad's record and the crimes of his regime as an excuse. Bush has propped up plenty of Islamic terror regimes -- look at the Taliban and Saudi Arabia."
The on-campus protests were far more measured in their tone.
Despite the controversial Iranian leader's history of making inflammatory statements and his suspected terrorist ties, many students said he had a right to speak at the Ivy League school. And some support for the president was evident in signs and banners posted around the campus alongside those condemning his visit.
"I'm not protesting his right to speak," said sophomore Sarah Brafman, 19. "I'm protesting him and his administration's policies."
Brafman said she was not speaking on behalf of any organization, but she, like many students protesting Ahmadinejad's visit, wore black T-shirts distributed by a group calling itself the Columbia Coalition.
For each sign placed on the wall of a building or on a sidewalk protesting the speech, another supporting the Iranian president, or attempting to paint his regime in a positive light, cropped up next to it.
Posters that purportedly showed two gay men that had been beaten at the hands of the Iranian police hung next to signs that read "Iran had the second most Jewish citizens in the Middle East next to Israel" and that its parliament had Jewish and Zoroastrian lawmakers.
Many of the students protesting Ahmadinejad's visit insisted that despite earlier media reports, the tenor of the protest was less about banning the president from campus and more about protesting his policies.
Those policies include being "anti-free speech, anti-women's rights, anti-gay rights and calling for the annihilation of a U.N. member state," said Lauren Steinberg, 20, a junior and a political science major.
"Now that he's here, it is important we challenge him," she said.
A number of those who make up Columbia's Iranian student body, many of them women in head scarves, were also present at the center of campus.
Zeinab Fard, a 25-year-old graduate student studying economics, estimated there were more than 100 Iranian students at Columbia.
"It's good that Ahmadinejad is speaking here directly and not through the filter of the American media, which sometimes twists his words," she said.
"Iranians have never bothered the United States, and America has many times attacked Iran. It is important that Americans hear what he has to say. He has a right to be here," Fard said.
One member of the Iranian community said Ahmadinejad did not represent the values of a large part of the country, but his presence on an American university campus was an important symbol to the American people.
"Many Iranians know he is a bit crazy," said Atefeh, the 26-year-old Iranian wife of an engineering student who asked that only her first name be used.
"He was supported mostly by the poor and uneducated. It is good that he is here because this is an occasion in which many Americans will get to learn about the beautiful country of Iran for the first time."
Despite reports that the Iranian government has supplied Iraqi insurgents with materials to kill Americans, one student, a military veteran who served in Germany outfitting U.S. jets with bombs, said Ahmadinejad had a right to speak.
"It is really important that he's here and a dialogue has opened up," said Aaron Bliese, 27, a creative writing graduate student.
"Didn't we learn anything from the last four years? Maybe if we had sat down with Saddam in the first place, and listened to what he had to say, the war could have been diverted. It's important to have a forum."