1:25 p.m. — I’m sitting in an overflow room, one of five Columbia has set up around campus for students who want to see Ahmadinejad speak but couldn’t get tickets. The main auditorium is projected onto a screen at the front of the room; members of Ahmadinejad’s entourage, conspicuous by their grey suits and collarless shirts, have begun to file in and take their seats, separated from the students and faculty. An announcer periodically reminds audience members that the Secret Service asks them not to leave their seats to go to the washroom once the event begins.
1:45 p.m. — Ahmadinejad walks in, to scattered applause. The Dean of the School of International Affairs, John Coatsworth, takes the microphone first, calling today an “extraordinary opportunity” to engage Ahmadinejad. He calls for civility and restraint in the questions, and asks the audience not to interrupt the proceedings.
1:49 p.m. — Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia, takes the microphone, to considerable applause. He thanks SIPA for hosting the event, and talks about the school’s tradition of supporting debate on world issues. He stresses that hosting speakers doesn’t necessarily express naïveté about their ideas. “We do not honour the dishonourable” when we listen to their views. Bollinger then apologizes to those who are hurt by the event, and stresses the idea of knowing your enemy. Bollinger is an academic and a free speech scholar, so it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate person to introduce Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a major American university.
Bollinger then addresses his comments to Ahmadinejad, taking him to task for a Columbia graduate who was recently released from jail in Iran but is still under house arrest there. He then extends an offer to the graduate to join the faculty of Columbia next semester if Ahmadinejad will release him.
He then cites the fact that more than thirty people were hanged in August in Iran as part of an ongoing crackdown against dissidents. Money line: “You exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.” He goes on to ask about persecution against dissidents, the intolerable conditions within Iran vis-� -vis press rights. He asks to be allowed to travel to Iran to address people there about free speech. He cites Ahmadinejad’s statements denying the Holocaust as both dangerous and ridiculous, and suggests he might be uneducated. “Will you cease this outrage?”
Bollinger moves on to Ahmadinejad’s statements calling for the destruction of Israel, his funding of terrorism, his support for insurgents and attacks on US soldiers in Iraq, his destabilization of Lebanon. Finally, the nuclear program: Bollinger calls Ahmadinejad out on his refusal to adhere to UN standards for verification of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Money line two: “I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions.” He then expresses hope that Ahmadinejad will continue to be undermined at home by his fanatical mindset, and closes with the line that he wishes he could do a better job of exposing what Ahmadinejad stands for, but he’s only a university president.
2:05 p.m. — Ahmadinejad takes the stage and begins by complaining about the political statement against him. He says it’s inappropriate to open with a series of claims, to provide a vaccination against the speaker’s ideas. He calls Bollinger’s statement an insult to the audience’s ability to make up their own mind. He says some of Bollinger’s claims are incorrect, and suggests he’s been affected by media reports.
Ahmadinejad moves on to the importance of academics and the search for truth, and leaving researchers to do their work. “Whenever the high stature of high science is preserved and the dignity of scholars is protected, human beings have taken great strides toward their material and spiritual promotion.”
He goes on in this vein, reading from a prepared text and wagging his right index finger heavily. No sound from the audience, which stays silent as he goes on to cite a series of verses from the Koran about the importance of learning.
2:15 p.m. — Ahmadinejad notes that every prophet has aimed to deliver humans from ignorance, “corrupted ways of thinking.” The real science, he says, is that which rescues humans from ignorance. Speaking of ignorance, no direct response so far to any of Bollinger’s points.
He’s moving on now to the dangers of letting the interests of science being swept up by material interests. This is pretty rich from a man whose latitude in international affairs is a direct function of the price of oil.
2:20 p.m. — Ahmadinejad goes on to talk about the misuse of science by political interests. Presumably, the irony is lost on him. He takes aim at the US for making war in the world and tapping telephones at home.
Now he says that making weapons of mass destruction is another example of the misuse of science. He mentions Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the ongoing effects of depleted-uranium-tipped weapons in Iraq. “Some big powers do not want to see the progress of other nations.”
2:25 p.m. — He says he now wants to refer to two points made by Bollinger. He talks about sixty years of conflict and death in Palestine, about security in the Middle East being endangered. Ahmadinejad asks a few questions: First, why can’t researchers approach the topic of the Holocaust from different perspectives? Second, if the Holocaust is a reality, why are the Palestinian people paying the price of an event they had nothing to do with?
Third, on the nuclear question: the IAEA allows every member state to pursue nuclear power. Iran has had plenty of inspections which indicate Iran’s activities are peaceful. But powerful countries are trying to deny Iran its rights. “How come you can have that right [to pursue nuclear energy] and we can’t?”
Concluding line: “We are a peaceful nation. We love all nations.”
2:33 p.m. — Dean Coatsworth begins posing questions from the audience to Ahmadinejad. Question one: does Iran seek the destruction of the Jewish State? Answer: We love all peoples, including the Jewish people. To solve the sixty-year problem, we must allow the Palestinian people to decide their future for themselves. Ahmadinejad calls for a free referendum by every “Palestinian.” Coatsworth pushes for a clearer answer: Do you or your government seek the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state, yes or no? Ahmadinejad declines with a smile.
2:37 p.m. — Q: Why is your government providing aid to terrorists? Ahmadinejad plays coy on this one, calling Iran a victim of terrorism. “For us, it’s quite clear which powers fund terrorists.”
2:41 p.m. — Q: Since the Holocaust is well documented, why are you calling for more research? Ahmadinejad turns the question around, and asks whether we can “close the book for good on a historical event.” If we continue to research physics and mathematics, he asks, why not history?
(Score so far: Ahmadinejad, 3; Columbia, 0.)
2:45 p.m. — Q: Why does Iran persecute women and homosexuals? Predictably, Ahmadinejad talks about high-ranking women in politics and universities. “It’s wrong for some governments to spread lies that distort the full truth. Our nation is free.” As to homosexuals: “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, unlike in your country.”
2:50 p.m. — Q: What would you have said, had you been permitted to go to the site of the September 11 attacks? Ahmadinejad responds that he wanted to pay his respects to the victims and their families.
2:55 p.m. — Q: Why is Iran seeking to acquire enriched uranium, suitable for nuclear weapons? Ahmadinejad is cagey, saying Iran’s program is within the law of the IAEA. He stops short of saying that Iran has no intention of building nuclear weapons, but says they go against the grain of humanity. “The politicians who are making nuclear weapons are backward, are retarded.”
More questions follow, but the outcome is no longer in dispute: Coatsworth has thrown his best punches, and Ahmadinejad is able to parry every shot.
3:00 p.m. — Ahmadinejad closes by inviting Columbia students and faculty to visit Iran and speak with university students there. “We will respect you 100 percent.”