In what has become a bizarre, contentious and annual event, Iran’s outspoken President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opened his eighth foray to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly with a candid barrage certain to perplex and outrage.
The Iranian threatened Israel – again – with elimination, but opined that he wished al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been given a fair trial and decried gays as guilty of “ugly behaviour.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s sometimes unseemly behaviour commands considerable attention because of the importance of nation he represents and the swirl of crisis surrounding him. And it recalls the headline-making UN appearances of similarly unpredictable leaders from earlier eras whose UN appearances made headlines.
Cuba’s Fidel Castro once delivered four long hours of criticism after opting to stay in a Harlem hotel. The Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev famously banged a UN table with his shoe. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat showed up wearing a holster and then darkly warned, “I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad matches them all for theatrics.
On Monday, in remarks to a small group of reporters and at a UN conference, he returned to familiar themes. He dismissed the threat of Israeli warplanes attacking Iran’s nuclear sites as empty and inconsequential. The Jewish homeland – founded in 1948 – was a minor historical blip, he said, that comes “into the picture and [is] then eliminated.”
As for the threat of war, “we do not take seriously the threats of the Zionists,” Mr. Ahmadinejad, said refusing, as always, to utter the words “Israel” or “Israelis.”
He shrugged off U.S. threats, too.
“We are not expecting a 33-year-old problem between the United States and Iran to be resolved in a speedy fashion,” he said, adding: “But there is no other way besides dialogue.”
That’s not the way the White House sees it.
“President Ahmadinejad says foolish, offensive and sometimes unintelligible things with great regularity,” remarked President Barack Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney, who pointedly re-issued the threat of war against Tehran’s ruling mullahs.
“Every option available, and that includes the military option, remains on the table when it comes to keeping [the President’s] commitment to Iran not acquiring a nuclear weapon.”
Later, in an hour-long interview conducted by CNN’s Piers Morgan, the Iranian president touched on a wide range of issues, including his regret that Mr. Bin Laden was killed in a U.S. Navy Seal raid rather than get “a transparent trial ... to find out the root causes of all the events of the last few years.”
Pressed by Mr. Morgan to explain or withdraw his previous statements that Israel should “be wiped off the face of map,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said he meant for “occupation” and “war-seeking” to be wiped from the world.
But he left no doubt about what he regards as the illegitimacy of the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East. And he said he wouldn’t object if one of his children married a Jew. “There are many Jews living in Iran with whom we are very close,” he said.
Mr. Ahmadinejad will speak to the General Assembly on Wednesday.
And, as usual, it’s likely the American, Canadian, Israeli and other delegations will march out mid-speech. By happenstance, his turn at the podium falls on Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.
The timing of speeches is set by precedence and alphabetical rotation, although some will regard as offensive that a man who has publicly mused about Israel’s elimination will have a public platform at the UN on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
It will, in any case, be his last speech as Iran’s president. By next year he will have completed the maximum-allowable two terms as Iran’s president, although he hinted that he might not be done with Iranian politics.