Opinion – Welcoming Back the Iranians

By Rafael Medoff

In this photo released by the Iranian Army on Thursday, Aug. 25, 2022, a drone is launched in a military drone drill in Iran. (Iranian Army via AP)

The Biden administration has indicated it will grant a visa to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York City in September. It seems the administration has not learned much from the bitter experience of previous visits by Iranian leaders.


White House officials claim that standard diplomatic protocol requires the U.S. to extend the courtesy of a visa to all international leaders to take part in U.N. activities, regardless of those leaders’ records.
In fact, however, there have been exceptions. For example, the Bush (41) administration refused to grant a visa to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat to speak at the U.N. in 1988. And the Trump administration rejected a request by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammed Zarif, to attend the U.N. General Assembly in 2020.
Then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took advantage of the generosity of both the Bush (43) and Obama administrations and used his annual speech at the U.N. to launch wild attacks on America, Israel and Jews in general.


In his first visit, in September 2005, Ahmadinejad declared that the U.S. efforts to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons production were comparable to “apartheid.” He also denounced the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina.


The following year, in addition to speaking at the U.N., Ahmadinejad was hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. During the question-and-answer period, an audience member briefly related his experiences in the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau. In response, Ahmadinejad “spent 40 minutes questioning the evidence that the Holocaust ever happened,” The New York Times reported.


Columbia Welcomes a Nazi


The Ahmadinejad visit that attracted the most attention was in the autumn of 2007, when, in addition to his U.N. appearance, the Iranian leader spoke at Columbia University. An Israeli government official said at the time that Columbia’s invitation to Ahmadinejad was “like inviting Hitler in the 1930s.”


That remark was more than a little ironic because, in fact, Columbia did invite Nazi Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Hans Luther, to speak on its campus in 1933. His speech focused on what Luther characterized as Hitler’s peaceful intentions toward Germany’s neighbors. Students who criticized the Luther invitation were derided as “ill-mannered children” by the director of Columbia’s Institute of Arts and Sciences.


Columbia also maintained friendly relations with Nazi-controlled German universities and took part in student exchanges with them. Columbia refused to pull out of the exchange program despite a German official’s candid statement that his country’s students were being sent abroad to serve as “political soldiers of the Reich.”


In 1936, Columbia sent a delegate to Nazi Germany to take part in the 550th anniversary celebration of the University of Heidelberg — despite the fact that Heidelberg already had been purged of Jewish faculty members, instituted a Nazi curriculum, and hosted a burning of books by Jewish authors. The Columbia representative at the event, Prof. Arthur Remy, later said the reception at which chief book-burner Joseph Goebbels presided was “very enjoyable.”


The leader of a student protest against Columbia’s participation, Robert Burke, was expelled from the university and never readmitted, even though he had excellent grades and had been elected president of his class.


Harvard, Too


Not that Columbia was the only Ivy League university to pursue friendly relations with antisemitic regimes, then or now. Two weeks after Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia in 2007, Harvard University hosted a speech by a supporter of the Ahmadinejad regime, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami.


Back in 1934, Harvard hosted a visit by Hitler’s foreign press spokesman, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl. Himself a Harvard alumnus, Hanfstaengl was treated as an adored celebrity during his visit to the campus.
The Harvard administration also rolled out the red carpet for the crew of a Nazi warship, the Karlsruhe, when it docked in Boston harbor in 1934, the swastika flag flying from its mast.


“Officers and crewmen from the warship were entertained at Harvard, and professors attended a gala reception in Boston where the warship’s captain enthusiastically praised Hitler,” Prof. Stephen Norwood reported in his book, The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower.


The following year, the German consul-general in Boston was permitted to place a swastika wreath in the university’s chapel in honor of German war veterans who were Harvard alumni. And Harvard, like Columbia, accepted the invitation to take part in the Heidelberg celebration.


Scoring Propaganda Points
The Ahmadinejad visit to New York in 2007, like the Nazi officials’ visits to Columbia and Harvard in the 1930s, gave officials of a totalitarian antisemitic regime an opportunity to improve its image in the eyes of naïve American audiences — in other words, to score propaganda points.


Four years after Ahmadinejad’s speech at Columbia, The New York Times revealed that shortly before his visit, a front group for the Iranian regime, the Alavi Foundation, donated $100,000 to the university. (The U.S. government later sanctioned the foundation and seized its assets because of its work on behalf of Tehran.)


Columbia University spokesman David Stone vigorously denied there was any connection between the donation and the invitation to Ahmadinejad. Of course, that wouldn’t really make it any better; it would mean only that Columbia was so anxious to give a platform to the terror-supporting, Holocaust-denying Iranian leader that it was willing to do so even if it didn’t receive a penny from Tehran.


In the weeks preceding the current visa application by Iran’s president, an Iranian agent was indicted by the Justice Department for conspiring to murder America’s secretary of state and national security adviser, and a Muslim terrorist attempted to implement an Iranian fatwa (religious decree) to murder the dissident author Salman Rushdie.


For the Biden administration, however, the priority seems to be smoothing the way for another nuclear agreement with Iran, and that apparently means welcoming Iran’s president to New York City, no matter what his predecessors did on their visits, and no matter how many Iranian operatives or allies attempt to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States.


Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and the author of more than 20 books on Jewish history and the Holocaust.

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