World and Nation

Ahmadinejad Sparks Protests, Debate Over Columbia Speech

He said there were no homosexuals in Iran — not one — and that the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews should not be treated as fact, but theory, and therefore open to debate and more research.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, aired these and other bewildering thoughts in a two-hour verbal contest at Columbia University on Monday, providing some ammunition to those who said there was no point in inviting him to speak. Yet his appearance also offered evidence of why he is widely admired in the developing world for his defiance toward Western, especially American, power.

In repeated clashes with his hosts, Ahmadinejad accused the United States of supporting terrorist groups, and characterized as hypocritical American and European efforts to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“If you have created the fifth generation of atomic bombs and are testing them already, who are you to question other people who just want nuclear power,” Ahmadinejad said, adding, pointedly: “I think the politicians who are after atomic bombs, politically, they’re backwards. Retarded.”

His speech at Columbia, in advance of his planned speech on Tuesday at the United Nations, produced a day of intense protests and counterprotests around the campus.

It was a performance at once both defiant — he said Iran could not recognize Israel “because it is based on ethnic discrimination, occupation and usurpation and it consistently threatens its neighbors” — and conciliatory — he said he wanted to visit ground zero to “show my respect” for what he called “a tragic event.”

And he said that even if the Holocaust did occur, the Palestinians should not pay the price for it.

He began the afternoon on the defensive.

Lee C. Bollinger, the president of Columbia, under intense attack for the invitation — one protester outside the auditorium passed out fliers that said, “Bollinger, too bad bin Laden is not available” — opened the event with a 10-minute verbal assault.

He said, “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” adding, “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.”

The Iranian president, who was seated 10 feet away from him on the stage, wore a frozen smile. The anti-Ahmadinejad portion of the audience, which looked to be about 70 percent of it, cheered and chortled.