Iran's Leader Sets Sights on New York

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to attend this month's U.N. General Assembly session in New York City, and has again challenged President Bush to a public debate to compare the merits of democracy and Islam.

The news prompted a Likud lawmaker in Israel to urge his country's government to demand that Ahmadinejad to be barred from attending the session.

The Jerusalem Post quoted Dan Naveh as saying it was impossible for a man who had called for Israel's destruction to take part in a U.N. meeting.

Although Ahmadinejad attended last year's General Assembly session -- following some debate over a visa because of allegations he was linked to the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage drama -- over the past 12 months he has become considerably more controversial.

He has on several occasions made comments interpreted as calling for an end to Israel, and has also questioned the authenticity of the Holocaust.

Iran is, furthermore, currently facing the prospect of U.N. sanctions after ignoring an Aug. 31 Security Council deadline to stop enriching uranium. The U.S. and its allies suspect Tehran is using its ostensibly civilian program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons technology.

The Irna news agency reported that Ahmadinejad told cabinet ministers Wednesday his attendance at the U.N session would provide a good opportunity for a debate with Bush.

The entire world, and especially Americans, would be able to watch the encounter "directly and without any censorship," he said.

Media coverage of the event would enable the nations of the world "to hear the viewpoints [of the two sides] and to choose the best."

Ahmadinejad said Iran was ready to present models for better governance, the establishment of global justice, and the elimination of enmity.

"It is possible to prove in a debate which of the two political systems is a better choice for the world nations -- the one that is established based on the norms of liberalism and has caused so much dilemmas and plight for the mankind, or the one that is established based on monotheism and justice."

Ahmadinejad has increasingly focused on confronting Bush personally, and on seeking to contrast Western-style democracy with Islam.

Last May he sent an 18-page letter to Bush, challenging him to embrace the tenets of Islam.

The letter, which some commentators suggested was a historically significant invitation to dialogue, was dismissed as a distraction by the White House, as was an Ahmadinejad invitation to Bush last month to hold a televised debate.

U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric Wednesday said he had "no particular comment" about the latest Iranian invitation to a debate at the U.N.

The General Assembly's 61st session opens next Tuesday. The Iranian leader plans to attend the gathering after taking part in a summit of the 116-nation Non-Aligned Movement, hosted this year by Cuba and running from Sept. 11-16.

Since his unexpected election in June 2005, Ahmadinejad has stoked controversy with repeated verbal attacks against Israel.

Last October, addressing a "World without Zionism" conference, he called the Jewish state a "stain of disgrace" that would soon be "purged from the center of the Islamic world," and approvingly cited the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei as saying the regime occupying Jerusalem "must be eliminated from the pages of history."

Last month, at a meeting with Islamic heads of state in Malaysia, he was quoted by Iranian media as saying in relation to the war between Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon that "the real cure for the conflict is elimination of the Zionist regime."

Confirmation of Ahmadinejad's intended visit is likely to spark calls in the U.S. for the State Department to deny him a visa.

Under the 1947 "headquarters agreement" establishing the permanent seat of the U.N. in New York City, delegates from foreign countries are to have unimpeded access to the demarcated "headquarters district."

Asked about the visa issue, Dujarric said every country that hosts a U.N. headquarters (others are Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi) "has certain responsibilities in terms of allowing officials to attend meetings here."

"They also have their own responsibility vis-a-vis their own laws," he added. "But we would expect heads of state and others who come here to be granted visas."

In 1988 the Reagan administration refused to issue a visa to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat to attend a General Assembly session because of his "associations with terrorism."

The Assembly overwhelmingly condemned the move and voted to hold a special session in Geneva, which Arafat addressed.

See also:
Iranian Letter to Bush Seen as Invitation to Embrace Islam (May 10, 2006)

Subscribe to the free daily E-Brief.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow