The speech by the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, during his introduction of President Ahmadinejad to the students and faculty on Monday may have offended many people, Iranians included. But aside from some personal references to Ahmadinejad, which were impolite and insulting, were Bollinger’s remarks inaccurate or untruthful?
I believe Lee Bollinger presented one of the most methodical indictments against the Islamic Republic in recent memory. Let’s review his remarks.
First, he challenged Ahmadinejad on the brutal crackdown on journalists, human rights advocates and scholars in the Islamic Republic. Bollinger, himself a legal scholar specializing in freedom of speech, made these references on a day when Iran closed down the country’s most popular news website, Baztab. Last August, the pro-reform and largest-circulation daily in Iran, Shargh, was closed down. Many journalists and human rights advocates are being held in the notorious Section 209 of Evin prison.
Bollinger directly asked Ahmadinejad why women, members of the Baha’i faith, homosexuals and academics have become targets of persecution in Iran. This is a fair question, for which Ahmadinejad did not offer any answers.
Second, Bollinger challenged Ahmadinejad on the denial of the Holocaust and his calls for the destruction of Israel. In his response, Ahmadinejad proved him right. The denial of the Holocaust by a sitting president of the country is an embarrassment for all Iranians. The call for destruction of Israel, by Ahmadinejad and many other leaders of the Islamic Republic has helped isolate Iran more than any other issues in the world arena.
Bollinger’s challenge was fair. It is high time for all Iranians to distance themselves from the inhumane and uncivilized policies regarding the Holocaust and Israel’s existence.
Third, Bollinger brought up the issue of Islamic Republic’s funding of terrorism. The Iranian government itself openly supports Muqtada Al Sadr and Iraqi Shia militias, the Hamas and the Hezbollah. In fact the leaders of these groups are among the most frequent visitors to Tehran. Ahmadinejad again chose to ignore the question.
Fourth, Bollinger challenged Iran on its proxy war with the US in Iraq. This is a fair question. In the past couple of weeks, published reports point to arms supplies from Iran into Iraq, including 240mm rockets and deadly roadside bombs, that are meant to kill and injure American and coalition soldiers. The Iranian government has yet to challenge the evidence or deny charges. Ahmadinejad had an opportunity at Columbia to do so, but he ignored the question.
Finally, Bollinger challenged the Iranian president on the nuclear issue. Iran does not have a single nuclear power plant in operation, yet it has accelerated its uranium enrichment program. It is fair to ask why Iran needs so much enriched uranium if it could not use it as fuel in any power plants. Why the hurry to enrich uranium then? (We know that enriched uranium could also be used in nuclear weapons.) As much as Ahmadinejad likes to frame the issue as a “national right” of the country to keep enriching uranium, it is as fair to ask for what purpose.
Bollinger gave Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Republic more than they had bargained for. They wanted to show that the intellectual community in the US welcomes them as much as the White House shuns away from them. Instead Bollinger presented a most systematic indictment of the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad needs to address all these issues clearly and quickly.