NEW YORK (JTA) – With speeches, fiery rhetoric and protestations of one sort of another, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his opponents in the United States faced off against each other during his latest visit to New York.
By the end of the visit -- after Iran’s president used the bully pulpit of the U.N. General Assembly to tag Zionists as murderers and suggest they are responsible for the global economic turmoil, after a rally of thousands opposite the United Nations to protest Iran, after Ahmadinejad was feted with multiple media interviews and a Ramadan break-fast meal hosted by a leading U.S. Quaker group -- not much appeared to have changed.
Iran continued to assert its intention to maintain its nuclear pursuits, international inspectors continued to be barred from Iran’s nuclear facilities and Iran’s Jewish opponents continued to issue a steady stream of warnings about the Islamic Republic and condemnations of the Iranian president.
But shortly after Ahmadinejad left the country, two new resolutions aimed at tightening the noose around Iran -- one in the U.N. Security Council and one in the U.S. Congress -- were moving forward.
On Saturday, the Security Council passed a new resolution pressing Iran to comply with nuclear weapons inspectors and reiterating earlier sanctions resolutions against the Islamic Republic. Though the new measure did not contain any new sanctions legislation, it was a reaffirmation of the Security Council's resolve to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear arms and served as a rebuke to the regime in Tehran for not cooperating with weapons inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In Washington, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved Iran sanctions legislation late Friday.
The bill, approved in a voice vote, was a consolidation of two other bills the House already had approved in this Congress, now winding down its business ahead of the general election. The two other bills, strongly supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, had been stymied in the U.S. Senate by Republican parliamentary maneuvers, and the vote Friday evening was a last-ditch attempt by Democrats to push through new sanctions legislation.
Like the earlier bills, the new measure would close loopholes allowing U.S. companies to operate foreign subsidiaries that deal with Iran, expand the range of sanctions against foreign entities that deal with Iran and facilitate divestment from Iran for pensions.
The resolutions at the United Nations and in Washington capped a week in which Ahmadinejad’s visit gave Iran and its opponents myriad platforms to showcase their views to the public.
The week was bookended by rallies.
First came the gathering Monday of several thousand at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza opposite the United Nations in a Jewish-sponsored event marred somewhat by the controversy that erupted the previous week over the invitation and subsequent disinvitation of Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. The week ended with a protest of a couple of hundred activists on Thursday outside Manhattan’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, where Ahmadinejad was being hosted at a Ramadan iftar meal sponsored by Mennonite, Quaker and other religious groups, including the American Friends Service Committee.
"No feast with the beast," read one banner at the protest outside.
In the days between, Ahmadinejad delivered his speech at the United Nations, Israeli President Shimon Peres delivered a rebuttal of sorts, news outlets from National Public Radio to CNN’s Larry King sat down with the Iranian president, and Jewish organizations issued a torrent of news releases condemning the Iranian president and, in some cases, the organizations and people meeting with him.
“The American Jewish Committee was appalled to learn that the President of the General Assembly, Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, has put the credibility of the United Nations into question. He has agreed to speak at a dinner in honor of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” AJC president Richard Sideman and executive director David A. Harris wrote in a letter of protest to U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon regarding Thursday night’s iftar dinner.
“The presence of the President of the General Assembly at an event in honor of Mr. Ahmadinejad,” the letter said, “would make a mockery of you, the United Nations, and the nations and leaders who have made a point of rejecting Holocaust denial whenever, wherever, and by whomever it is made.”
Brockmann, who hugged Ahmadinejad after his speech at the General Assembly, was not dissuaded from going.
The Anti-Defamation League sent out an urgent letter of its own to Ban calling on him to condemn Ahmadinejad’s U.N. speech Tuesday. “We ask you to speak out against his vile words and denounce his outrageous claims and abuse of the U.N. platform,” ADL National Director Abraham Foxman wrote to Ban.
In the address, Ahmadinejad’s most public stage of the week, the Iranian president delivered a scathing attack on Zionists and sounded some classic anti-Semitic motifs. He said Zionists are criminals and murderers, are "acquisitive" and “deceitful,” and dominate global finance despite their “minuscule” number.
“It is deeply disastrous to witness that some presidential nominees have to visit these people, take part in their gatherings and swear their allegiance and commitment to their interests in order to win financial or media support,” Ahmadinejad said.
Iran’s president also said Israel was on the path to collapse and that its demise would be a good thing for the world.
Ahmadinejad echoed those sentiments in interviews throughout the week, explaining patiently to a succession of American interviewers that his remarks constitute predictions of Israel’s demise, not threats by Iran to destroy it. He also said that his hostility is reserved for Zionists, not Jews, and that Iran’s nuclear interests are peaceful, not belligerent.
Journalists challenged some of Ahmadinejad’s contentions and questioned him about his denial of the scope of the Holocaust, his regime’s human rights abuses, the Islamic Republic’s support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and Iran’s refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors. But the smiling president -- in his signature beige jacket -- often seemed to outmaneuver his interlocutors with his patient demeanor and the help of his shrill, female translator.
The most strident attacks against Ahmadinejad came from Israel and its American friends -- something some opponents of the Iranian regime found disheartening.
“To their shame, U.N. member states’ pledges of ‘Never Again’ were betrayed by a singular lack of moral outcry,” observed Eve Epstein, vice president of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, in a column in the National Review. “Have they learned nothing from the multitude of Holocaust education and genocide prevention programs they sponsored?”
Israeli and Jewish officials have taken pains to cast the threat from Iran as a global issue, rather than a parochial issue. They hammered home that message throughout the week in private meetings with leaders of countries from around the globe who were in New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.
Despite their efforts, many Jewish organizational officials acknowledge that the Iranian problem is being viewed, first and foremost, as a matter of Jewish concern. This is evident in the widespread assumption that no state other than Israel is likely to take the action of last resort – i.e. a military strike -- to stop an Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Still, with few outside the Jewish community picking up the torch, national Jewish communal leaders based in New York felt they needed to speak out.
“There is a growing sense that we had to abandon the earlier concern about it being a wedge issue simply because of the growing alarm about the Iran nuclear program and the shortness of time,” the AJC’s Harris told JTA.