President Obama may not have cut new ground at the United Nations, but any American listening to him had to be proud of his eloquence. Not so for Iranians who heard their president suggest that some Americans might have launched the September 11, 2001 attacks.
I thought about all the intelligent Iranians I knew and how they would view President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's provocative speech in the UN General Assembly. It bounced along about colonialism, the occupation of Palestine, the Vietnam War, Afghanistan, Iraq and the hundreds of people killed. It ended with tributes to Jesus and Moses and Abraham and Isaac.
But in the center came his analysis of the attacks against the United States on 9/11. Ahmadinejad said there were several viewpoints on who was responsible and that the United Nations should investigate the tragedy. (Iran, on the other hand would host a conference next year to "study terrorism and the means to control it.")
Then he delivered the coup de grace:
"Some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East in order to save the Zionist regime. The majority of the American of the American people as well as other nations and politicians agree with this view."
No one knows where he got that idea as polls show the opposite.
That statement triggered a walk-out. Two American delegates stood up first and slowly walked through the General Assembly hall after which 27 European Union country members followed along with Australia, Canada and New Zealand and others. (The hall was half empty when he began his speech, possibly because a high-level Security Council meeting, led by Turkey and including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was running at the same time.)
The Iranian president also questioned how a terrorist group was "able to successfully cross all layers of the American intelligence and security." Ironically, Iran is no friend of Al Qaeda, which proudly took responsibility for the attacks.
On Friday the criticism mounted. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "strongly condemned" the comments that "called into question the cause of the 9/11 terrorist attacks." President Obama told the BBC's Persian service the statements were "offensive" and hateful" and voiced so close to Ground Zero. Nick Clegg, the British deputy prime minister, said in his General Assembly address that the "bizarre" statements were meant to generate media headlines.
But Ahmadinejad was unperturbed. He told reporters he was only listing existing theories and not making a judgment. But then he did precisely that, saying that the role of Al Qaeda had to be questioned because Washington had used it as a rationale to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. He made no distinction between criticizing the invasions and determining who was responsible for the attacks.
The problem, however, is that conspiracy theories about 9/11 are not new. They first appeared in Europe and one book topped the French bestseller list, followed by pseudo intellectuals in Germany. The theories then crossed the Atlantic, where the bigger the lie (usually with an anti-Semitic tinge), the more web pages seemed to swallow it. But no world leader has voiced them in speech at the United Nations.
Unlike Libyan leader Muamar Gaddafi, who pontificated in flowing robes for more an hour and a half at last year's UN General Assembly session, Ahmadinejad is anything but grand, wearing simple clothes. He doesn't pound the table or shout. But he appears to make things up as he goes along (like denying the Holocaust) and pretends they are the accepted academic or scientific norm.
Iran never uses the word "Israel," the only country in the United Nations to avoid it, and refers to the Jewish state as the "Zionist entity," once but no longer the norm among Middle East nations. Israelis diplomats sat out the day of speeches because of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.
Obama, in his second speech to the General Assembly, concentrated on an Israeli-Palestinian peace pact and the need for human rights, democracy and in a 21st century world.
But he did not ignore Iran, saying that while Washington had not abandoned diplomatic talks, Teheran "must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program." Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful use only and will not lead to bomb-making.
On the Middle East, Obama was blunt in spelling out the dangers of failing to reach a peace agreement, told Israel to extend its moratorium on settlements, made clear to friends of the Palestinians they should support the process and said that "Israel's existence must not be a subject for debate." He was applauded when he predicted that an agreement next year would lead to a new UN member - "an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel." (His speech was also interrupted by applause when he backed U.N. Women, a new agency to protect women's rights, led by ex-Chilean President Michelle Bachelet).
But James M. Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations said that Obama's remarks "highlighted his limited leverage over the peace talks" especially the expiration over Israel's moratorium this weekend and the Palestinian threat to leave the talks if it is not renewed. "Left unanswered is what to do should either side ignore his plea."
Obama's strongest plea was on democracy and human rights, lacking in most countries in the world. He called it a simple idea "that freedom, justice and peace for the world must begin with freedom, justice, and peace in the lives of individual human beings."
"We see leaders abolishing term limits. We see crackdowns on civil society. We see corruption smothering entrepreneurship and good governance. We see democratic reforms deferred indefinitely."
He implored those nations who emerged from tyranny to speak out against injustice, mentioning South Africa which had refused to condemn rights violations when it sat on the UN Security Council. "Don't stand idly by, don't be silent, when dissidents elsewhere are imprisoned and protestors are beaten," he said.