When he came to New York for his first United Nations General Assembly last year, the newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a virtual unknown. But in the past year he has become the international face of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and growing influence from Lebanon to Iraq, not to mention his calls for the elimination of Israel and his repeated questioning of the Holocaust.
So it came as no surprise that Jewish groups and Iranian opponents mobilized en masse against him by holding demonstrations in front of the U.N., circulating petitions calling for Iran’s ouster from the world body and publicly preparing lawsuits against Ahmadinejad.
The Iranian president was coming off a summit of nonaligned countries in Cuba, where vehement accusations against Israel’s actions in Gaza and Lebanon were launched.
On Wednesday, thousands of demonstrators from Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, led by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and joined by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, staged a demonstration against “global terrorism and its state sponsors” that was mainly aimed at Ahmadinejad.
Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Dan Gillerman, criticized the Bush administration for granting an entrance visa to Ahmadinejad and allowing him to address the General Assembly.
“We didn’t think it was correct to honor this man with our presence. I am very sorry that he was even allowed to speak at the U.N.,” Gillerman told Israel Radio. “I ask myself if the American administration didn’t have an opportunity, even at the expense of violating its agreements with the U.N., not to give an entrance visa to this man.”
The Israeli delegation boycotted the Iranian president’s speech, and the United States made it a point to send only what its ambassador to the U.N. called “a junior-level note taker.”
Bush denounced Tehran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and its sponsoring of terrorism, although he acknowledged Iran’s rights to pursue a civil nuclear program. He also said that he supported a diplomatic solution. Bush addressed the Iranian people, telling them that their leaders were hindering such an outcome; however, he did not name their president.
Ahmadinejad, for his part, criticized America’s hegemonic ambitions and focused much of his criticism on the illegitimacy of the U.N. Security Council because of Washington’s influence on it. He claimed that America’s policies in the Middle East, such as its support for Israel and for America’s occupation of Iraq, have caused human suffering. Ahmadinejad added that America’s nuclear program poses a greater threat to peace and security than Iran’s.
On the same day that the two speeches were given, hundreds of protesters with ties to Iranian opposition groups gathered near the U.N., chanting such slogans such as “Ahmadinejad is a terrorist.” Some were dressed as skeletons and carried skulls on sticks, which they said represented the deaths of 120,000 political prisoners in Iran since 1979.
Jewish groups also blasted the Council on Foreign Relations, a prestigious think tank, for hosting an event for the Iranian president. The groups argued that it would give him undue legitimacy. After several prominent figures, including Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Senator Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, called for the dinner to be canceled, the council instead decided to organize a “working meeting” that was closed to the public. Several prominent Jewish members of the council refused to attend.
In the meantime, American and European diplomats were engaged in intense discussions on the sidelines of the General Assembly regarding the stalled negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program. Washington, which had urged sanctions in recent weeks because of Iran’s refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, appeared to come closer to the Europeans’ insistence to enter serious talks even without the suspension.
The administration’s softening, if confirmed, is likely to renew Israeli concerns and, as a result, ratchet up the efforts of its supporters here to denounce Tehran.
U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based monitoring group affiliated with the American Jewish Committee, launched a petition calling for the Security Council to expel Iran from the U.N., following a similar call by Israel a few months ago after made his infamous speech about wiping Israel off the map.
This past May, it was reported that a group of prominent Israelis — headed by former Israel ambassador to the U.N. Dore Gold, Knesset member Dan Naveh, former ambassador to the United States Meir Rosenne and Eytan Bentsur, an ex-director general of the Foreign Ministry — were working to prepare a legal case against Ahmadinejad. The most likely venue is a referral to The Hague’s International Criminal Court, for incitement to genocide based on the 1948 U.N. convention against genocide.
The Israeli group has called for Iran’s expulsion from the U.N., an effort that recently received the support of Wiesel, Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz and Canadian politician Irwin Cotler.