GENEVA – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the West of using the Holocaust as a “pretext” for aggression against Palestinians, prompting walkouts Monday by every European Union country at a UN conference on racism.
The meeting turned chaotic almost from the start when two protesters in rainbow wigs tossed red clown noses at Ahmadinejad as he began his speech with a Muslim prayer. A Jewish student group from France said it had been trying to convey “the masquerade that this conference represents.”
Ahmadinejad – the first government official to take the floor – restarted and delivered his speech for more than a half-hour, saying the United States and Europe had helped establish Israel after the Second World War at the expense of Palestinians.
“They resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering,” he said.
That prompted the walkout by some 40 diplomats from Britain and France and other European Union countries. The Europeans had threatened to leave the conference if it descended into anti-Semitism or other rhetoric harshly critical of Israel, which marred the UN’s last conference on racism eight years ago in South Africa.
Canada, the United States and eight other western countries were already boycotting the event Monday, the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, because of concerns about its fairness.
Ahmadinejad also accused Israel of being the “most cruel and repressive racist regime” and blamed the U.S. invasion of Iraq on a Zionist conspiracy.
Most of his rhetoric was not new but its timing and high profile could complicate U.S. efforts to warm ties with the Islamic republic. Alejandro Wolff, the U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations, denounced what he called “the Ahmadinejad spectacle.”
“We call on the Iranian leadership to show much more measured, moderate, honest and constructive rhetoric when dealing with issues in the region, and not this type of vile, hateful, inciteful speech that we all saw,” Wolff told reporters at the UN in New York.
Protesters holding placards reading “This is a circus. A racist cannot fight racism,” repeatedly interrupted the speech with shouts of “Shame! shame!” and “Racist! racist!”
Later, about 100 members of mainly pro-Israel and Jewish groups tried to block Ahmadinejad’s entrance to a scheduled news conference.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon met with Ahmadinejad before his speech and said he had counselled the Iranian leader to avoid dividing the conference. Ban later said he was disappointed Ahmadinejad had used his speech “to accuse, divide and even incite,” directly opposing the aim of the meeting.
“It was a very troubling experience for me as a secretary general,” he told reporters. “It was a totally unacceptable situation.”
The Israeli Foreign Ministry condemned Ahmadinejad’s speech and Ban’s meeting with the Iranian leader.
“It is unfortunate that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon deemed it appropriate to meet with the greatest Holocaust denier of our time,” Israel said. “This matter is especially severe, as it took place on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day.”
Ahmadinejad has been praised by some in the Muslim world for calling for Israel’s destruction and for other anti-Israeli comments. The hardliner has often used international forums to criticize Israel including at last year’s UN General Assembly where he said Israel was on “a definite slope to collapse.”
Most Muslim delegations in Geneva declined to comment, but Pakistan said the protesters were wrong to interrupt Ahmadinejad’s speech.
“If we actually believe in freedom of expression then he has the right to say what he wants to say,” Ambassador 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.”
Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s spokesman said Britain would return to the talks but “unreservedly condemns his offensive and unacceptable remarks.”
In Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned what he called “an intolerable call to racist hate.”
Ahmadinejad’s speech also took aim at the United States for its role in the global economic crisis and at western countries for imposing unfair economic conditions on the developing world.
Ahmadinejad’s speech was also interrupted several times by cheers from the large Iranian delegation accompanying the government. Iran’s state TV broadcast pictures showing some delegates cheering and other delegates leaving the conference.
But Ahmadinejad’s provocative remarks may not be well-received among many others in Iran, which is suffering from high inflation and unemployment partly as a result of its global isolation. Many have criticized Ahmadinejad, who is up for re-election in June, for spending too much time on anti-Israel and anti-western rhetoric and not enough on the country’s economy.
Ahmadinejad, as head of state, had the right to speak and did not need a UN invitation to the weeklong event aimed at stamping out intolerance worldwide.