Iranian Calls Israel Racist at Meeting in Geneva
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran on Monday used the platform of a United Nations conference in Geneva on combating racism to disparage Israel as a "cruel and repressive racist regime," prompting delegates from European nations to desert the hall and earning a rare harsh rebuke from Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
As Mr. Ahmadinejad began to speak, two protesters wearing rainbow-hued clown wigs - their statement on the tenor of the proceedings - pelted him with red foam noses. Hustled out the door by security agents, they were soon followed by lines of stony-faced diplomats from the 23 European nations attending the conference. They walked out to the sound of some other delegates applauding Mr. Ahmadinejad.
The United States and more than a half-dozen other nations had already boycotted the gathering out of concern that it would focus on maligning Israel rather than on the global problems of discrimination, replaying the disputes that marked the first United Nations conference on combating racism in Durban, South Africa, in 2001.
Years of negotiations intended to avoid just such a scenario failed, underscoring the uneasy gap that exists between the rest of the world and the West when it comes to certain issues, like whether Israel's treatment of the Palestinians under occupation belongs at a forum on discrimination and xenophobia.
The speech and the reaction are also likely to complicate but not necessarily derail recent attempts between the West and Iran to forge new negotiations over the Islamic Republic's nuclear development program.
Member states, who wrangled for months over the draft document for the Geneva conference, had ultimately removed controversial statements about Israel; about what constitutes defamation of religion, a position pushed by Muslim states; and about compensation for slavery.
But a reference in the draft document that endorsed the communiqué that emerged from the contentious Durban meeting - where the United States and Israel walked out - set off the boycott. Besides the United States, the countries staying away included Germany, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia. Canada and Israel announced months ago that they would not attend.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, who seems to take visible delight in his diatribes against Israel and denying events like the Holocaust because it so irks Iran's opponents, brought the contention roaring back to the fore. He was the only head of state to attend.
"Following World War II they resorted to military aggressions to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering," Mr. Ahmadinejad said, grinning as he spoke, his remarks coincidentally falling on the day that Jewish communities mark the Holocaust. "And they sent migrants from Europe, the United States and other parts of the world in order to establish a totally racist government in occupied Palestine."
Portraying Israel as a regional boogeyman has been a cornerstone of Iran's 1979 revolution, although Mr. Ahmadinejad, facing a presidential election in June, is often criticized at home for spending too much time on Palestinian issues and not enough fixing the economic woes of Iranians.
The speech prompted the normally mild-mannered Mr. Ban and other top United Nations officials to voice uncommon criticism of the leader of a member state. "I have not experienced this kind of destructive proceedings in an assembly, in a conference, by any one member state," Mr. Ban said.
"I deplore the use of this platform by the Iranian president to accuse, divide and even incite," he said, urging members to "turn away from such a message in both form and substance."
Mr. Ban also criticized members of nongovernmental organizations for heckling Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, criticized Mr. Ahmadinejad for "grandstanding" from a United Nations dais and said his performance should not be an excuse to derail the important topic of the conference.
She also made a not-so-subtle dig at Iran's treatment of its own minorities, after noting that the president's remarks were outside the scope of the conference. "This is what I would have expected the president of Iran to come and tell us: how he is addressing racial discrimination and intolerance in his country," Ms. Pillay said.
Mr. Ahmadinejad's speech prompted a chorus of condemnation. Israel recalled its ambassador to Switzerland to protest both the conference and meeting Sunday between the Swiss president, Hans-Rudolf Merz, and Mr. Ahmadinejad.
At the United Nations, Ambassador Alejandro D. Wolff, the deputy permanent representative for the United States, said the Iranians deserved better.
"It shows disregard for the organization to which he is speaking - the United Nations - and does a grave injustice to the Iranian nation and the Iranian people," he said, suggesting that Iranian leaders show "much more measured, moderate, honest and constructive rhetoric when dealing with issues in the region."
Not everyone at the conference was critical of the speech, which also wandered through topics like the economic collapse and Iraq and Afghanistan.
"If we actually believe in freedom of expression, then he has the right to say what he wants to say," the Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Zamir Akram, told The Associated Press. "There were things in there that a lot of people in the Muslim world would be in agreement with, for example the situation in Palestine, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, even if they don't agree with the way he said it."
Those who supported the Obama administration's attending the conference said their attitude was not altered by Mr. Ahmadinejad's remarks. "It is unfortunate that the inappropriate and out-of-line remarks of Ahmadinejad would obscure the only international forum to address racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia," Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, said in a statement by the Congressional Black Caucus.
Nick Cumming-Bruce contributed reporting from Geneva, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.