Making his third trip to the United States in as many years, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad touched down in the country amid a wash of controversy.
He joins past anti-American leaders, such as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro, in creating a storm by visiting the U.S.. Ahmadinejad is no doubt used to causing a stir.
As the leader of the nation with one of the most contentious nuclear program in the world, as well as a holocaust-denier who has made calls to “wipe Israel off the map,” Ahmadinejad’s name is never far from the headlines.
While his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, the same day as that of President Bush, will no doubt make the news regardless of what is said, it is the 50-year-old president’s plans for the rest of the trip that have succeeded in raising tensions in the already volatile American-Iranian relationship, according to The Associated Press.
The controversy first began when President Ahmadinejad expressed a desire to visit Ground Zero, the site of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and lay a wreath at the spot. When news of this request broke there was no shortage of highly emotional reactions from Americans.
The thought of the president of a country, which is accused of being a terrorist supporter, visiting the site of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history seemed inconceivable to many, according to The AP.
Nor did many prominent politicians fail to make their feelings known. Then mayor of New York City, and current Republican presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani objected to the act said, “this is a man who has made threats against America and Israel, is harboring bin Laden’s son and other al-Qaeda leaders, is shipping arms to Iraqi insurgents and is pursuing the development of nuclear weapons.”
Democratic presidential front-runner, and New York senator, Hillary Clinton echoed those sentiments said, “It is unacceptable for [Ahmadinejad], who refuses to renounce and end his own country’s support of terrorism, to visit the site of the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil in our nation’s history.”
Ahmadinejad’s request was subsequently turned down by the New York Police Department because of concerns about security risks, and due to the ongoing construction of the World Trade Center Memorial. Ahmadinejad said he would not press the issue. That was not the only of Ahmadinejad’s intentions to rouse public opinion. The president was also invited, and accepted the invitation to speak at New York’s Columbia University on Monday before his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, according to The AP.
The question and answer forum has been the subject of debate since the university extended the invitation. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg did not attend.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger has defended the invitation, and resisted calls for its withdrawal, said that Columbia “is committed to confronting ideas – to understand the world as it is and as it might be.” Many students agree that Ahmadinejad deserves the right to speak, even though some plan to protest the event. “He’s a leader of a large nation and what he says is important, even if it’s wrong,” said Columbia University graduate student, Dmitry Zakharov.
Bollinger lambaisted the Iranian leader in a scathing introduction on Monday. “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” Bollinger said to applause from many of the 600 people in the room for a speech from the Iranian leader, according to the Associated Press.
John Carroll Univeristy history professor Hong-Ming Liang said he would not invite Ahmadinejad to speak alone, but would support an invitation where the president could “explain his views…on a panel with others,” where his views could be challenged and debated. It must be done “respectfully and openly,” he said, to show “how seriously we take to the ideals of free speech, liberty, and civil discourse.”
On Tuesday, while speaking at the U.N., Ahmadinejad announced that “the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed,” and indicated that Tehran will disregard U.N. Security Council resolutions imposed by “arrogant powers” and demanding suspension of its uranium enrichment.