Critics of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad started protesting before the hardline leader even made his scheduled arrival in New York for a couple of planned speeches at a high-profile university and the United Nations that have aroused a storm of opposition.
A group elected officials and civic leaders demonstrated Sunday outside Columbia University, where Ahmadinejad was scheduled to speak Monday. Protests were to follow Monday near Columbia and the U.N., where the Iranian president was to address the General Assembly on Tuesday.
City Councilmember David Weprin said, “This invitation is a slap in the face to all New Yorkers and especially to those families who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 right here in New York City.”
State Assemblyman Dov Hikind added, “He should be arrested when he comes to Columbia University, not invited to speak for God’s sake.”
Some political leaders and religious groups have said Columbia should not give Ahmadinejad a platform. Among them are the head of the City Council, Christine Quinn, who has said “the idea of Ahmadinejad as an honored guest anywhere in our city is offensive to all New Yorkers.”
Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust “a myth” and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” The White House has said Iran sponsors terrorism and is trying to develop nuclear weapons, while Iran insists its atomic activities are aimed at producing energy.
Also on Sunday, the wife of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in March while on a business trip in Iran, appealed for Ahmadinejad to help in returning him.
“It is my greatest hope, and that of our seven children, that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will use his visit to New York to announce what the Iranian government has done to find Bob, and provide any information they have uncovered about what happened to him, where he is now, whether he is in good health, and when he will return home,” Christine Levinson said.
The Iranian government has denied any knowledge of Levinson despite repeated requests on his whereabouts by the State Department through Swiss intermediaries.
Iran has agreed to allow Mrs. Levinson to travel to the country following her recent letter to Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki “even though there is no information that would corroborate the presence of Mr. Levinson in Iran,” according to a press statement from the country’s U.N. Mission.
Columbia canceled a planned Ahmadinejad appearance last year, citing security and logistical reasons. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said there were “efforts to cancel” the upcoming Columbia speech, but the Iranian government was continuing to pursue the program. He did not elaborate other than to say pressure was being brought to bear on the program’s sponsors.
Columbia has said Ahmadinejad has agreed to take questions and will be challenged to discuss his views on the Holocaust, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and other issues.
Through a spokeswoman’s recorded message on a telephone line set up to respond to inquiries about the speech, Columbia President Lee Bollinger said the university’s commitment to “understanding the world as it is and as it might be” required engagement at times with “offensive and even odious” beliefs.
“It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open a public forum to their expressions. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible,” the message said.
The telephone line was not accepting messages early Sunday, and Columbia representatives did not respond immediately to an e-mail message.
Some Columbia students even some who plan to rally against Ahmadinejad have said they support allowing him to speak.
Ahmadinejad caused a stir earlier this week with a much-criticized request to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site, an idea that prompted an outcry from politicians and Sept. 11 victims’ families. Police denied the request, citing construction and security concerns.
For his part, Ahmadinejad said Sunday in Tehran, before leaving for New York, that the American people were eager to hear different opinions about the world, and he was looking forward to having the chance to voice them during his trip to the U.S., state media reported.
Despite the tensions between Washington and Tehran, many Iranians do not share their president’s hostility towards the United States. After the Sept. 11 attacks, hundreds of young Iranians held a series of candlelight vigils in Tehran to express sympathy for the victims.
Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York is being debated back home. Some in Iran think his trip is a publicity stunt that hurts Iran’s image in the world.
Associated Press Writer Pat Milton contributed to this report.
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