Full Disclosure
September 28, 2007

A case of east versus west

For the individual who is following the tumultuous unfolding of international relations between the United States of America and Iran, eyebrows would have been raised when one heard that an invitation was given by a University in the United States to entertain the President of Iran, dubbed by many to be the voice of terror.{{more}} But was it really an invitation by the democratic of a dictator? This article is not intended to cast aspersions on either side, but to simply analyse the nature of the visit and some of the lasting implications.

The welcome received by the President in the Big Apple was always going to be harsh. It began when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad requested that he wanted to visit Ground Zero to “pay his respects” to those who died in the attack on the twin towers at the World Trade Centre. Several groups were outraged and soon security became an issue and the visit was canceled. Well, can we really blame anyone in this situation?

Apart from the mixed welcome that the President received from various groupings of New Yorkers, President Ahmadinejad took the stage at Columbia University to a rather blistering reception from the President of the University Lee Bollinger, who spared no words in describing the Iranian President as “a petty and cruel dictator”. It was an unprecedented introduction of a world leader. Whether or not this was warranted is to be determined by one’s conscience. However, this did not deter the Iranian President from describing Bollinger’s introduction as a blatant insult before proceeding into what turned out to be an address in self defence.

The Iranian President emphasized that, although he was grateful to be provided the opportunity to be in an academic environment to speak to those seeking the truth and striving for the promotion of science and knowledge, he saw it very unkind to have such a political statement ushered against him at such a forum. He then cited an example of what pertains at home in Iran, when he explained “Iran’s tradition requires that when we demand a person to be invited to be a speaker, we actually respect our students and the professors by allowing them to make their own judgment, and we do not think it necessary before the speech is even given to come in with a series of claims and to attempt in a so-called manner to provide vaccination of some sort to our students and faculty.”

In fact, instead of an introduction of the speaker, it was apparent that the University President was using the opportunity to clear the air and assure the American public that the University was in agreement with many of the criticisms leveled against a number of Iran’s current domestic and foreign policies, and that the invitation must not be construed otherwise. It appears that the tenor of the introduction was also intended to place the Iranian President in a position where his address had to be a direct response to what the United States was seeing from the outside and not a mere elucidation of his current policies.

If I were the President of the University of Columbia, while the content in my address might have been different, there was definitely no harm in keeping the President’s address in close check, since this was a grand opportunity to hear directly the words of President Ahmadinejad without the colour from the press. In the long run, what was clear was that either President Bollinger was misinformed with regard to Iran’s policies, or President Ahmadinejad was not totally truthful in his responses. However, where the truth lies is not to be decided here.

The issue of religious tolerance, freedom of speech and self-determination of sovereign states are all issues that must be considered when analyzing this clash of ideologies. From as early as the salutations by the President, it was clear that he recognized that his right to freedom of religion was not to be circumscribed in anyway.

Hence, his introduction,:“Oh, God, hasten the arrival of Imam al-Mahdi and grant him good health and victory.”

In his speech, the Iranian leader focused on the advantages of science, while emphasizing the dangers in using it for “stripping nations of their wealth.” He also criticized the United States of America for organising an eavesdropping program, and concluding that the US government “did not respect the privacy of their own people.”

President Ahmadinejad voiced skepticism over the official version of the 9-11 attacks, hinting yet another twist in the worst terrorist attack on US soil. “Why did this happen? What caused it? What conditions led to it? Who was really involved and put it all together?” This line of rather provocative questions may have been quite unfortunate and advisably. The President should probably have stayed clear of these. However, who really knows what the President may have been thinking?

President Ahmadinejad has since been criticised for failing to directly answer questions about whether he sought the destruction of Israel. In response, he sought to discuss the plight of the Palestinian people and concluded that we must have greater efforts to “Let the people of Palestine freely choose what they want for their future.”

Further controversy has developed based on the President’s insistence that Tehran has the right to develop a nuclear programme, which he has said is for peaceful purposes. This programme is vehemently opposed by the United States and other Western nations who accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons.

In conclusion, some commentators are of the view that President Ahmadinejad left the University of Columbia without answering many questions posed to him. While that may be true, I, however, respect the fact that amidst the wealth of criticism, President Ahmadinejad was willing to dialogue. This may say something for the future of world peace.