If Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is searching for a souvenir from his sojourn this week to the Big Apple, he might consider an "I Love New York" T-shirt. No other town, after all, gives the firebrand bad boy of Western-Islamic relations the platforms, the polemics, and the attention that Iran experts say he craves. These far outstrip, experts add, the authority and influence he actually wields, since Mr. Ahmadinejad does not have the power of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In the limelight, Ahmadinejad has been a man under attack – from the outcry that followed the Iranian leader's proposal earlier this month to lay a wreath at ground zero, to the condemnation that met him at Columbia University Monday, to the scrutiny given his speech at the United Nations Tuesday.
According to specialists in Iranian affairs, he couldn't have asked for more.
"He is loving this, just absolutely loving it," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The fact is that he is not by any means the all-powerful leader in Iran, so this feeds his conviction that he is at the center of the universe."
When Ahmadinejad, whose country is listed by the US as a state sponsor of terror, asked to visit the site of the 9/11 attacks, members of Congress were quick to protest. And when Columbia President Lee Bollinger – himself under attack for accepting on his campus a leader who has denied the existence of the Holocaust – introduced his guest by calling him a "petty and cruel dictator," Ahmadinejad didn't miss a beat. He ad-libbed an "I am shocked, shocked!" routine.
In his unorthodox introduction, Mr. Bollinger listed the reasons Ahmadinejad is held in such contempt here, including:
•His denials of the Holocaust and call for the destruction of the state of Israel.
•His "reported" support for Iranian-sponsored terrorism, and most recently for Iran's alleged provision of training for Shiite militias in Iraq and explosive devices targeting US troops there.
•Iran's defiance of the UN Security Council in the pursuit of its nuclear program.
•The Iranian government's suppression of academics and civil society, and its handling of the rights of women and minorities, including gays.
•The government's imprisonment of journalists and scholars, including Columbia alumnus Kian Tajbakhsh – whom Bollinger challenged Ahmadinejad to allow to leave Iran so he could assume a teaching position next semester at Columbia.
For his part, Ahmadinejad spoke at length about science as a gift "from the divine," about the long years of American support for the Iranian people's enemies (read the late shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War), and about six decades of the West's trampling of the rights of the Palestinians.
Ahmadinejad drew particularly loud howls of derision from the largely student audience when he dismissed a question about the oppression of homosexuals in Iran by claiming, "We do not have this phenomenon [of homosexuality]. I don't know who has told you we have it."
In any case, the president's target audience did not appear to be the one sitting before him, but rather the one at home and around the Muslim world. The long discourse on science as a God-given gift, for example, seemed designed to remind Iranians and Muslims that knowledge and, in particular, mastery of the nuclear cycle are not meant to be monopolized by Western powers.
"His audience is that part of the Iranian political spectrum that has been radicalized in recent years," says Bahman Baktiari, director of research at the School of Policy and International Affairs at the University of Maine in Orono. "But when he speaks of the Palestinians, his audience is the [Mideast] region," adds Mr. Baktiari, who is an Iranian-American. "In the region, they don't see him as an Iranian leader. They see him as a defender of Palestinian rights and the Muslim world."
So far, however, there was little comment in regional press about his speech.
Whomever Ahmadinejad was interested in reaching, the majority of the crowd outside Columbia's gates at Broadway and 116th Street saw no reason for the city's top university to provide the stage.
"I believe in free speech, but that doesn't mean the university should make itself the venue for spreading hate and lies," said Albert Marshak of Long Island. "He'll have his day at the UN but not at one of the oldest universities in America."
Two Iraq war veterans wearing yellow "Ahmadinejad is not welcome!" buttons said they were outraged that a man they saw as a supporter of terrorism would be invited to address young Americans.
"He may not be the power, but he represents the power," said Mike Cantando, of Scranton, Pa., who along with his protesting buddy, Frank Vonderhey, of Kutzdown, Pa., were with the Army in Iraq for a year ending in June 2006. "The ayatollahs are pulling the strings, and he's the dummy on the cords. But he represents the policy."
Columbia's invitation to Ahmadinejad only makes sense, Mr. Clawson of the Washington Institute says, if the university has a policy of holding forums with controversial speakers. He and others noted that Jim Gilchrist, head of the anti-illegal-immigration vigilante group the Minuteman Project, was recently told he couldn't appear at a speaking engagement.
In any case, Baktiari believes Ahmadinejad may be on the proverbial thin ice, as Iranians tire of a faltering economy. "He's been using his outrages as a distraction from his failures, but a growing part of the population is seeing it for what it is," he says.