By Anne Penketh, the Independent Diplomatic Editor
Published: 26 September 2007
Why are we asking this question now?
Because of the furore surrounding the visit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to New York for the UN general assembly session. He was greeted by headlines in the New York tabloids which screamed "The Evil has Landed" and "Madman Iran Prez". He gave his third address as president to the UN General Assembly last night, but only after a controversial meeting at Columbia Uuniversity, whose authorities came under strong pressure to deny him a platform.
How did he do?
He set out the policy of Iran's "peaceful" nuclear programme, and responded to questions about his troubling statements concerning his denial of the Holocaust and on seeking the destruction of Israel. But he destroyed his own credibility by asserting, in response to a question, that "in Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country". That comment earned him the most laughter – and boos – of the event.
So was the US right to try to silence him?
Of course not. The president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, undermined his own case for freedom of speech in his insulting introduction in which he described the university's guest as exhibiting "all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator" and expressed the hope that Mr Ahmadinejad would not remain in office.
There are several problems with America's demonisation of Mr Ahmadinejad. Firstly, it confers on him a prominence in the Iranian power structure that he does not have in reality. It is not the Iranian president who wields the most power in Tehran: the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calls the shots and decides nuclear policy. Secondly, scare-mongering has proved counter-productive by enabling him to portray nuclear power as a priority and a matter of national pride.
The personal insults aimed at the Iranian president during his New York visit could also end up increasing his popularity at home, rather than the reverse. But there is also the grim reminder of Saddam Hussein, who was the last foreign leader demonized by the American administration and US television networks. With a figure like President Ahmadinejad held up as the representative of the "axis of evil" by the Bush administration, it can only comfort the position of the US and Israeli hawks who believe that Iran should be stopped from obtaining a nuclear weapon, by military force if necessary.