TOPICS > Politics

Ahmadinejad Rails Against ‘Arrogant’ U.N.

September 25, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The president of Iran takes his show on the American road. Judy Woodruff has our story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In his four-day trip to New York City, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been at the center of controversy and protests.

PROTESTOR: I don’t think we would have invited Hitler, so I don’t think we should invite Ahmadinejad.

PROTESTOR: I would like to see that the people of the world get united, get rid of this brutal regime, so a lot of good people like me can go back to Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The official reason for Ahmadinejad’s visit came this afternoon, when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly. He told the U.N. Security Council to back off efforts to stop Iran from developing nuclear power.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, President of Iran (through translator): Unfortunately, the Security Council, in dealing with this obvious legal issue, was influenced by some bullying powers and failed to uphold justice and protect the rights of the Iranian people. Fortunately, the IAEA has recently tried to regain its legal role, as supporter of the rights of its members, while supervising nuclear activities. We see this as a correct approach adopted by the agency.

Previously, they illegally insisted on politicizing the Iranian nation’s nuclear case, but today, because of the resistance of the Iranian nation, the issue is back to the agency. And I officially announced that, in our opinion, the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed and has turned into an ordinary agency matter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The U.S. and Israeli delegations did not attend his speech. But the high point of contention came yesterday, when the Iranian president visited New York’s Columbia University.

LEE BOLLINGER, President, Columbia University: Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The school’s president, Lee Bollinger, delivered a stinging, critical introduction, zeroing in on Ahmadinejad’s previous comments on nuclear power and the Holocaust.

LEE BOLLINGER: In a December 2005 state television broadcast, you described the Holocaust as a “fabricated legend.” One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers. For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda. When you come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.

Why does your country continue to refuse to adhere to international standards for nuclear weapons verification in defiance of agreements that you have made with the U.N. nuclear agency? And why have you chosen to make the people of your country vulnerable to the effects of international economic sanctions and threaten to engulf the world in nuclear annihilation?

Frankly, and in all candor, Mr. President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions, but your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterizes so much of what you say and do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Listening, Ahmadinejad maintained his composure throughout, even as the audience cheered and booed.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: I think the text read by the dear gentleman here, more than addressing me, was an insult to information and the knowledge of the audience here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Iranian leader offered lengthy commentary on religion and history. In contrast to past statements denying the Holocaust took place, yesterday, he said more research is needed.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: I have been told that there’s been enough research on the topic. And I ask, “Well, when it comes to topics such as freedom, topics such as democracy, concepts and norms such as God, religion, physics even, or chemistry, there has been a lot of research,” but we still continue more research on those topics. We encourage it. But, then, why don’t we encourage more research on a historical event that has become the root, the cause of many heavy catastrophes in the region in this time and age?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ahmadinejad also took questions from the audience.

LEE BOLLINGER: Mr. President, another student asks, “Iranian women are now denied basic human rights, and your government has imposed draconian punishments, including execution on Iranian citizens who are homosexuals. Why are you doing those things?”

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: Freedoms in Iran are genuine, true freedoms. Iranian people are free. Women in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedom. In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ahmadinejad also defended Tehran’s nuclear program and maintained it had the right to nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, a claim the West has challenged.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: If you have created the fifth generation of atomic bombs and are testing them already, what position are you in to question the peaceful purposes of other people who want nuclear power? We do not believe in nuclear weapons, period. It goes against the whole grain of humanity.

Ahmadinejad out for publicity

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ahmadinejad has more meetings this evening and plans to return to Iran tomorrow afternoon.

For more, we talk to Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is a dual Iranian and U.S. citizen.

And Gary Sick, adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia University, he served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He also attended President Ahmadinejad's speech at the university yesterday.

Gary Sick, to you first. The president, Ahmadinejad, turned out to be every bit the lightning rod that many had predicted. What's behind that?

GARY SICK, Middle East Institute at Columbia University: Well, there are several things behind it. The first is that he really is looking for as much publicity as he can get. And I must say, he is remarkably successful at getting it.

None of these things -- he's been on "60 Minutes" on Sunday. He was on Charlie Rose last night. He is on virtually every major TV and news program in the country. And all of that was actually set up well in advance, so these are not coincidences. He has actually gone out and looked for these opportunities, as well as at Columbia.

He was invited to Columbia. I very much support the idea that he should have come to Columbia, but the reality is that he is trading on his celebrity status to actually dominate the news.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karim Sadjadpour, so you agree, he knows exactly what he's doing here?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Absolutely. I think Ahmadinejad is a very eccentric character. He's someone who is coveting publicity, and he's someone is very interesting, in the sense that he ran on this platform of being a simple man, a man of the people, but he's actually someone who's quite narcissistic. And he does put a great deal of emphasis on what people think of him.

And he ran on this platform of being an economic populist. His mandate -- I covered these elections in Tehran. I was based in Tehran at the time in 2005. And his mandate was very clear when he was elected; that was to, quote, unquote, "put the oil money on people's dinner tables." But since he's come into office, he's really neglected the economy and taken this hard-line approach on the nuclear issue, taken a belligerent approach toward Israel, which, in fact, has really made Iran a more insecure environment and really deteriorated the Iranian economy more than improved it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He's not the head of state; he's the president. Whom does he speak for, really?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Yes, well, it's a very important point. The most important individual in the Iran is not President Ahmadinejad. It's the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. He was elected, but we're not talking about free and fair elections in Iran. There are certain vetting processes which take place.

He has a constituency in Iran of people who voted for him simply to improve the economy. But I think more than that, what he looks at is the regional scene. And Iran, from the beginning of the revolution, has always been very concerned about the Arab and Muslim streets, and particularly this government in Tehran is very much concerned about winning Arab and Muslim hearts and minds.

And I think that's why you see so much talk about the Palestinian issue, the denial of the Holocaust, which really doesn't play to the Iranian street, but sits well on the border Arab and Muslim streets.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gary Sick, the question is both how much power does he have and how much influence, more broadly, does he have?

GARY SICK: I think that's precisely the right question. He actually is not the most powerful person in Iran. He does not make nuclear policy. He does not make security policy. He is one voice among many and not even the most important voice by any means.

When nuclear strategy is being discussed in Iran, he is not the dominant figure to make things happen. So I think this sense which he has created to a considerable degree by his own self-promotion has made him the center of attention when, in fact, the real center of activity is some place else.

This is not the man who is going to launch a nuclear war against anybody from Iran. In fact, he is losing support so rapidly that many people genuinely believe that he will not be re-elected to a second term, when it comes up in just a little over a year.

Iran's nuclear policy

JUDY WOODRUFF: So when he makes the statement, as he just did at the United Nations just an hour or so ago, that in essence he's saying to the U.N. Security Council, "Back off, Iran's nuclear program is a closed issue," how much weight should we place on his statement?

GARY SICK: Oh, I think that's a formal statement of the Iranian position. He is reflecting the Iranian government's position, but he's not making that policy. That's not his policy. That is the policy of the Iranian government that he is, in fact, conveying to the rest of the world. And they believe that very strongly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karim Sadjadpour, are we just paying too much attention to him?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: It's a good question, because on one hand what Gary said is absolutely right. President Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful individual. At the same time, he is reflecting Iranian views right now, so it's difficult to neglect him.

And in the context of domestic U.S. politics, it's very difficult to ignore him. I think even if we wanted to engage Iran -- and I think engaging Iran is the right policy -- it makes it much more difficult when you have a president like Ahmadinejad who denies the Holocaust, calls for wiping Israel off the map.

And I think we would have a much easier time diplomatically if we were to go back to a president like Mohammad Khatami, the reformed-minded president, who was calling for a dialogue of civilizations. So I really believe that actually Ahmadinejad undermines Iran far more than he enhances Iran's status. And I think we have to go back to what FDR said, you know, speak softly and carry a big stick. I think Iran under Ahmadinejad, they speak loudly and carry a small stick.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're saying that he's hurting his country's place in the world?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think why I say this is I think whenever he opens his mouth in these forums, especially in front of the U.N. General Assembly, those that are listening, especially Western officials, European, American, even Chinese and Russian officials, I think, after listening to Ahmadinejad, they have even less confidence that there exists a mature political leadership in Iran which is amenable to some type of a diplomatic compromise. I don't think he inspires confidence to Iran's counterparts, diplomatic counterparts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Gary Sick, we know that, in another year or two, he could run for re-election. Is this something that the U.S. should be paying close attention to? I mean, put him in context, if you will.

GARY SICK: Well, I don't think this is our choice. I mean, basically the Iranian people and the Iranian leadership will be making that choice. And I can't speak for them. And, obviously, just as trying to predict outcomes in American politics is impossible, it's equally impossible in Iran.

But, nevertheless, the point that Karim just made I would make even more strongly and suggest that the leadership in Iran -- the grown-ups, as I would put it -- have every reason to be upset by what he has done. He has destroyed the image of Iran that had very painfully been built up over years after the death of Khomeini, through Rafsanjani and then Khatami. And Mr. Ahmadinejad has come along and undermined that tremendously.

And Iran is paying a huge price for that. They are not trusted; they are coming under sanctions. And it's not because he's the policymaker. It's because his words scare people very badly. And that leads to an outcome that is really very bad, as far as Iran is concerned.

And although I don't think that the exchange at Columbia was a particularly useful one in a lot of ways, I do think that he passed up an enormous opportunity to speak directly to the American people and to a group of students who were actually very interested in hearing what he had to say. I think he missed that opportunity.

Ahmadinejad's support in Iran

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think we could see tangible evidence on the part of his superiors back in Iran that they are unhappy with him?

GARY SICK: Everybody in Iran maintains -- they circle the wagons. They all say that they're really together, that they're all united, and so you're not going to hear that from them.

And it will not come -- politics in Iran is not played like American football. It's played like chess. There are multiple moves. You're jumping ahead. And a lot of it is very subtle, and it catches you by surprise later on. So I don't want to go overboard on this.

But there are real signs that he is losing a lot of support in the leadership and in the people. And I think that is something that we should think about when we pay so much attention to him and actually build up his appearance and his reputation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If that's the case, if he is losing the kind of support that you both are saying, is he in jeopardy of losing his position?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, obviously, like Gary said, it's very difficult to make predictions about the Iranian politics, but given the fact that he was elected with a very clear purpose -- to improve the economy -- and he's failed miserably in doing so, I think the likelihood of him being re-elected in June of 2009 is slim.

And I think more important, earlier indicators, the March of 2008 parliamentary elections, and I would also predict you will see more pragmatic internationalist individuals coming back into positions of influence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And if we should pay less attention to Mr. Ahmadinejad, whom should we be paying more attention to?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, it's the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. And he's someone who's been in power since Khomeini passed away in 1989, and he's also a very difficult one to figure out, because, on one hand, he doesn't want confrontation with the West. He was president during the time of the Iran-Iraq war when the country was in political-economic isolation. On the other hand, he doesn't want accommodation with the West. He's extremely mistrustful of U.S. intentions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he won't be coming to New York...

KARIM SADJADPOUR: He won't be coming to New York.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... very soon to make a speech, as far as we know.

Well, Karim, we thank you very much, Sadjadpour, thank you very much.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: A pleasure, always.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Gary Sick, thank you.

GARY SICK: It's a pleasure.