As Iranian President Ahmadinejad causes outrage at the UN General Assembly, a Dateline special from New York looks at the international reaction.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 21:32

There's been no holding back by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the past week; he used the UN General Assembly in New York to air his controversial views on subjects from the holocaust to homosexuality, and Syria to Israel.

Yalda Hakim hosts a special edition of Dateline from New York looking at the firestorm of international outrage it's unleashed.

She's on the streets for rowdy protests against his regime, and she hears from the city's Jewish community, who ask how he's allowed to enter the United States at all.

And when Ahmadinejad speaks at the summit, US and Israeli delegates walk out; both countries delivering a severe warning to Iran over its nuclear plans.

But what do the Iranians make of the hostility? In a special Dateline interview, Yalda puts the question to the country's Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, who accuses the US of a double standard on nuclear issues.

WATCH - Click to see Yalda's report from New York and her interview with Iran's Foreign Minister.

BIOGRAPHY - Read more about Ahmadinejad's life and career.

AHMADINEJAD INTERVIEW - Watch his interview with CNN that's caused so much controversy.

Photos: AAP

Watch Yalda's Story


Watch Foreign Minister Interview

Ahmadinejad Biography

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born in 1956, but it wasn’t until 2005 that he became Iranian President and the focus of worldwide attention. Read more background to his life and career"¦

Early life

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born in 1956 in Garmsar, around 100 kilometres south east of Tehran, but moved to the capital as a child, according to his official website.

In 1975, he began studying civil engineering in the Science and Technology University in Tehran, which marked the start of his academic career.

He ultimately became a member of the Board of Civil Engineering Faculty at the university in 1989. In 1997, he achieved a PhD on transportation engineering and planning there.

During his time teaching at the university, he researched and wrote many scientific papers and supervised students.

Political career

Ahmadinejad’s political career also started during his time at university and he was actively involved in 1979’s Islamic Revolution, which saw the monarchy overthrown and political control taken by religious clerics.

He also served as a member of Iran’s volunteer forces, known as Basij.

Later, he held a number of official posts, including Governor General of Ardabil Province in the mid 90s and Mayor of Tehran from 2003 until 2005.

Ahmadinejad also built a career as a journalist, including work as managing director of a newspaper.

Presidential controversy

Ahmadinejad is elected President in 2005, vowing to fight for justice and prosperity for Iranians and appealing for an end to weapons of mass destruction.

The ultra-conservative is the first non-cleric to hold the position since 1981. He’s said to receive much of his support from poorer and more religious Iranians.

Only weeks after becoming President, Iran resumes nuclear activities at a uranium enrichment plant, for what it says are peaceful purposes. The program had been suspended in 2004 after an agreement with some Western nations, who believe its real purpose is to make an atomic bomb.

In October 2005, Ahmadinejad says Israel is 'doomed to be wiped off from the map’, provoking an international uproar. He repeatedly rails against Israel and the Jews, describing the holocaust as a 'myth’.

In 2006 and 2007, sweeping UN and US Trade Sanctions begin, and by 2008 the inflation rate rises to 27% with high-profile criticism within Iran of the country’s economic policy.

Dateline reports from Iran in April 2007, looking at what the Iranian people think of their President.
He’s re-elected for a second term in June 2009, amid unproven allegations of vote rigging, prompting a scale of protests unseen since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Dateline reports on the protests and the defection of members of Iran’s military elite in July 2010.

Shortly before Ahmadinejad’s re-election, US President Barack Obama offers to put an end to 30 years of hostility, but Iran’s international relations continue to deteriorate, particularly regarding its nuclear ambitions.

The President also faces opposition within, when a 2011 row with supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei becomes public over the resignation of the Intelligence Minister.

New York visit

Ahmadinejad faces further outrage when visiting New York for the UN General Assembly in September 2012.

As Yalda Hakim reports for Dateline
, he makes a controversial speech to the UN and reiterates his previous comments on issues such as the holocaust and Israel in an interview with CNN.

Ahmadinejad’s term as President runs until elections next June. He’s married and has three children"¦ two sons and one daughter.

Sources: Iran’s Presidency Website/BBC/AFP/CNN/Guardian



World leaders gathered here last week for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. As the black limousines rolled in, there was a strong sense that this year's meeting could be fiery, with contentious issues in play, like the anti-Muslim video controversy and the ongoing war in Syria. Even before the assembly had time for serious debate, media comments by Iran's controversial leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on everything from the holocaust to homosexuality, ignited a firestorm of controversy.

REPORTER: Yalda Hakim

New York people power - this is the reaction in the city to the visit by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

PROTESTER: Mr Obama, stop your appeasement policy. It is time to realise that this criminal regime must go.

Part street theatre, part political rage, this protest just down the road from the UN has drawn together Iranian exiles, Syrians and former diplomats and politicians. A group united in a push for change in Iran.

JOHN BOLTON, FORMER AMBASSADOR TO UN: Let's get rid of these military dictators and let the people of Iran be free. Thank you very much.

Inside the UN building, the Iranian President was delivering a speech to the General Assembly. Well aware of the anger on the streets outside.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (Translation): The threat of military attack on the great Iranian nation by the uncivilized Zionists is one of the clear examples of this bitter reality. A lack of trust reigns over international relations. There is no trustworthy and just authority to resolve disputes. Even those who've stockpiled thousands of atomic bombs and other weapons do not feel secure.

The former US ambassador to the UN was unimpressed.

JOHN BOLTON: The longer they can do this, the greater the likelihood that while they're in the process of denying the real holocaust, they're preparing a nuclear holocaust.

The feelings towards Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are being expressed even more bluntly here in the New York Press, the 'New York Post' made its views of the Iranian President known this way.

Then, this scuffle outside the UN.

PROTESTER: He's a terrorist. Get the terrorist.

An Iranian diplomat confronted by outraged New Yorkers.

WOMAN: I'm going to beat the guy up. Come here!

In the sanctity of New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage, an even more profound sense of outrage simmers. This city's Jewish community deeply affronted that the Iranian President's remarks came on the holiest of Jewish holidays, Yom Kippur.

ABRAHAM FOXMAN, NATIONAL DIRECTOR, ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE: That a normal society treats him like a diplomat, like a head of state - doesn't ostracise him, doesn't boycott him. He has a right to come to New York. Sit in your hotel and go to the UN and back and forth. He's been on media and he's been celebrated by all kinds of groups. I find that very, very offensive.

The Anti-Defamation League's member, Abe Foxman is one of the holocaust survivors living in New York.

REPORTER: The Iranians say they're expressing freedom of speech. What do you think about that?

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: The irony of it is, the freedom of expression that exists in Iran, my God. How many journalists and people are sitting in prison because they voiced an opinion, because they challenged the regime or what it says, etc? So, OK, but do you see, he can do this and you're polite. Nobody is saying they can't say it. I have a right to say to the institutions of our land to say, "Don't give him that legitimacy. Don't treat him with this dignity. He hasn't earned it, he doesn't deserve it."

Abe Foxman watched CNN last week and saw this.

PIERS MORGAN, CNN PRESENTER : I'm simply asking you to state very clearly and simply whether you believed over six million Jews were killed by the Nazis in the war or not? The answer is either yes or no. It's not a difficult question?

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Translation): Your assumption is that this event took place. Where did it take place? Whom were the individuals responsible for this event? What does this have to do with the occupation of Palestine? What role did the people of Palestine play in this event? These are very clear and transparent questions, sir. The third question I asked;. if a historic event, if a historical event has indeed taken place, why so much sensitivity surrounding it by politicians?

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: Here is a head of state who has engaged in language so similar to the language of Hitler, who publicly says that we'll wipe out this country of Jews. And yet he sits like you and I sit. With CNN and AP and I find that offensive. I find it horrific. I find it frightening.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Where should a red line be drawn? It should be drawn right here before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb.

Israel's PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, used his turn at the UN to strike back at Iran, calling for swift action to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I believe that faced with a clear red line, Iran will back down. And this will give more time for sanctions and diplomacy to convince Iran, to dismantle its nuclear weapons program altogether.

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: He drew a very simple picture. Here is a bomb. Everybody knows what a bomb looks like and then he put a little red line so I think it's part of an awareness of a sensitivity. What's the result? All of a sudden they're talking about another meeting. Otherwise they're going to wait for meetings for weeks and months. At the end of the day, at the end of the day, if Iran does not stop, then I think some very serious people in some very serious places will make a decision.

REPORTER: Iran says it doesn't believe Israel will ever attack?

ABRAHAM FOXMAN: One thing Israel has learned from history when somebody says they're going to kill you, believe them. The last time people said don't believe, we paid a heavy price. So they take it seriously. If they come to the realisation that Iran continues to have the ability to build it and the world is just going to stand by and do nothing, yeah, because it's a question of their existence they will act.

New Yorkers with strong views on their Iranian visitor. You can see more on the life and times of Iran's controversial leader on our website. There's also a link there to the full interview which created all the heat this past week.


So what did Iranians think of all the hostility towards them here? Calls for change, the attack on their diplomat and a stinging press campaign against them. I sat down with the Iranian Foreign Minister and asked him how the delegation has reacted to such aggression.

ALI AKBAR SALEHI, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: We may disagree on things, individuals may disagree on issues, but this does not mean to show disrespect to each other. So I think this action is not really welcome by anybody. And we just, we do not attach very much importance to it. It's an incident that's happened. It's now over. Nothing serious has happened.

YALDA HAKIM: Four years ago when President Obama first came in to office, he angered the American people when he said that he wanted to offer a hand in friendship to Iran. Why do you think that relationship hasn't improved or it hasn't merged toward dialogue?

ALI AKBAR SALEHI: Our complaint is about American action, a US Government action against Iran. It has never been friendly. So it's only very natural that when you see one side treats you unfairly and unjustly, what else you can do? The only response you will have is to say, "Well why do you do this? Why don't you come to your senses?" Until the time when they come to the admission that a political relationship with Iran should be on equal footing, on equal par, until such time comes, I think it will be very difficult to have any sort of agreement.

YALDA HAKIM: You spoke of the mistrust and the aggression of America towards Iran, in fact Israel feels that the aggression is coming from Iran's side. Why do you think that hostility exists from Iran towards Israel then?

ALI AKBAR SALEHI: Well, this is a claim by Israel that we have done any aggression on any nation? What is the proof?

YALDA HAKIM: I think it's comments by the President this week even that denial of the holocaust, or that Israel would eventually be eliminated from the region. I think that's what sort of creates animosity.

ALI AKBAR SALEHI: Everybody can have their own view about issues. We speak about events that have taken place in history. When we speak about the freedom of speech and we want to analyse some event that has taken place in some time in the past and then turn this in to an issue that becomes an instrument for threatening military action against another nation, this is absolutely, I think, absurd.

Had they been serious about this, they wouldn't have made so much noise. They wouldn't have done what they wanted to do. This noise is to regain the lost, I would say, stature, international stature, they once enjoyed as an undefeatable power in the Middle East because they raised - I don't know how many wars, with the neighbouring Arab countries and they achieved nothing. So they lost their credibility. They're looking for ways of regaining that credibility so they are making all these noises.

YALDA HAKIM: You think they used the holocaust to threaten Iran, is that what you mean?

ALI AKBAR SALEHI: You see, what I'm trying to say is that the holocaust is something in the past. There are different views about the size, about the history of the development of such a catastrophe. But this is left to the historians. Everybody should be given the opportunity to give his views based on the facts that he gathers from here and there. Let people speak their mind. And why we turn this issue in to such a big deal?

YALDA HAKIM: Some would argue that perhaps the US and Israel have a double standard towards Iran, that they have nuclear weapons, yet they try and hold Iran accountable and question their nuclear program. How do you react to that?

ALI AKBAR SALEHI: You see, a country that has amassed thousands of nuclear warheads and has used this vicious weapon against innocent people in the past, killing hundreds of thousands is now accusing my country that we may have the intention of going towards nuclear weapons. While we have denied this, our Supreme Leader has very explicitly issued a fatwa that would forbid the production and accumulation and use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. This is absurd. Nobody buys this.

YALDA HAKIM: Finally, I wanted to know Iran's stance on Syria. Would you be supportive of a future government that is not Bashar al-Assad?

ALI AKBAR SALEHI: See, we're a strong ally of the people of Syria. We have expressed our position that people of Syria, like any other people in the world, have the right to enjoy democracy, the right for election, and any right that any citizen enjoys in any democratic country. But when it comes to outside interference and the internal affairs of Syria and when outside powers dictate upon the Syrian people, that their president should step down and this should happen, this is not the right way to do things.

YALDA HAKIM: There has been a revolution from within Syria, the people have risen?

ALI AKBAR SALEHI: Yes, there have been uprisings and demands put forward and it is incumbent upon the people of Syria to meet the demands of its people. What we are saying is both sides have to recognise the other side. The government has to recognise the opposition. What we can do is to facilitate this, to facilitate the shifting between the government and the opposition so that they find a way out for this crisis.


Supervising Producer





2nd October 2012