Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University has been getting an incredible amount of attention in the media, political and activist circles around the country. As someone who was born in Iran and lived in Tehran for 17 years, I want to give you my assessment of how I believe Ahmadinejad's visit will be viewed elsewhere in the world with the main conclusion that as he said his goodbyes to the audience in the university's hostile environment, one thing became clear: regardless of what you may think of his values (or lack thereof), he proved to be the savviest person in the room.
Let's begin with the massive protests. It was no surprise that there were thousands of people in the streets of New York protesting unconditional freedom of speech and his right to speak his mind. He knew that the city was home to over two million Jews, and that he would face massive protests. But that is precisely the martyr-like image that he was intending to create. Standing on that stage after a hostile introduction by the Columbia University president and in the face of thousands of protesters may have made him look lonely and illegitimate in the West. But to the eyes of many around the world, he looked like a hero and someone who was speaking what they are likely to consider "the truth" in the face of a bully. On August 31, this blogger wrote that one of the main reasons why the United States has not effectively addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and vetoed 47 UN Security Council Resolutions against Israel (14 under Bush II, 7 under Clinton, 7 under Bush I, and 19 under Reagan) is the strength of Jewish lobby in America and "the willingness of millions of Jews in America, including many liberal ones who normally support sensible foreign policies, to roll over, make an exception, keep silent and even vocally cheerlead America's support for the Israeli occupation." Massive protests in New York very much reinforced that assertion as almost all of the signs related to Iran's nuclear program and none relating to its actual human rights violations. I would have had a lot more admiration for the protesters if they focused more on Iran's primary crimes on women, youth, homosexuals, Baha'is and political dissenters instead of a predicted imaginary military attack against Israel that has not happened. Iranians will watch the protests and see that the main concern of the American people is not the oppression of Iranians, but Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel rhetoric.
The president of Columbia's criticisms of Ahmadinejad's crimes before his speech was very constructive. But Bollinger did the cause of free speech and America's image in the Middle East a great deal of disservice when he went on for almost 19 minutes name-calling Ahmadinejad before allowing him to speak and not really thanking him for accepting Columbia's invitation to speak. Ahmadinejad scored a second point when he criticized the Columbia president for giving the audience what he called a "vaccination" before Ahmadinejad had a chance to speak. He said that in Iran, they allow students and professors to freely exchange ideas without instructing them how they should feel about things. That, of course, cannot have been farther from the truth. Nonetheless, many in the room related to his argument, promoting the students to applaud, hence ridiculing those who introduced him. It is understandable why Columbia would be inclined to give such an introduction to defuse some of the pressure that was asserted on the university due to massive criticisms of the institution for allowing Ahmadinejad to speak. But he went too far, which gave Ahmadinejad the opportunity to successfully attack back and score some sympathy.
But the most tragic part of the event was the Q and A segment. The Iranian regime is as vulnerable with regards to its domestic policies as America is with regards to its foreign policy and war in Iraq. It is true that Iran has occasionally funded various groups that have been hostile to U.S. interests. But the United States has done the very same thing to Iran and much more. An example which Ahmadinejad pointed out to was Reagan's sales of weapons to Saddam, which he used against in Iran for eight years. I can still vividly remember the sound of sirens, duct taped living room windows and American-funded air strikes.
And yet, most of Bollinger's questions focused on Iran's foreign policies. By keeping the focus on international issues, Columbia gave him an easy way to turn the conversation around time and again and criticize American policy. One question was why Iran was enriching uranium, which Bollinger naively ended with "would you stop?" And why should they stop? There is no evidence that they are building a bomb, they are a member of the NPT, which gives them the right to enrich uranium, and their two main open enemies -- Israel and America -- both possess nuclear weapons, with the former not being a member of NPT and the latter breaking its rules by not moving toward the treaty's ultimate goal: elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Many Iranians hoped that Columbia would take this opportunity to keep the focus of questions on Iran's brutal domestic policies. And yet, of the five or six questions that were asked, astonishingly, only one related to human rights, with women and homosexuals put together in one question as if they didn't deserve their own individual questions. But for the most part, the questions that were asked of him were significantly superficial. This is not because questions with regards to anti-Israel and anti-American rhetoric aren't important. But rather, they are nothing new! Iran has been issuing such empty rhetoric since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Yet that's what they have been: empty rhetoric for domestic consumption, not an official policy declaration. But human rights crimes, stoning of women for infidelity, arresting unmarried people for dating or holding hands in public and killing homosexuals for being have been going on for almost three decades. As someone who was arrested in Tehran at age 16 for the crime of being on a date, I can attest to that fact. Here are some questions Bollinger should have asked: Will you allow women to have the right to initiate divorce from their husbands or obtain a passport without the consent of their husbands? Will you allow boys and girls to date or go to school together? Do you promise that the people in Iran can be safe in publicly criticizing you or the Supreme Leader Khomeini? Will you guarantee people's rights to wear whatsoever clothing they choose in public? Will you allow people to convert away from Islam to other religions? Would you support a free UN-administered referendum for your people to vote on whether they want an Islamic republic or a secular democratic republic? If yes, will you respect its outcome?
Without asking these significant questions or any meaningful understanding of more than 2,500 years of Iranian history, Columbia provided an environment for Ahmadinejad to criticize American policy, divert every viewer's attention from the country's brutalities and oppression and play to the audience's idealist beliefs that scored him more applauses than any meaningful challenge to his stance and record on issues that mattered the most.