Read up on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the U.N. General Assembly in New York this week, and you'll come across headlines like Activists to Protest Ahmadinejad in New York and Controversy Comes to NYC Ahead of UN General Assembly. But here's the caveat: While Ahmadinejad's General Assembly visits are always cloaked in controversy, this year, at least thus far, the protests are largely emanating from one source: the New York-based advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, which counts some foreign policy heavyweights among its members.
Past protests against Ahmadinejad's General Assembly visits have generally involved more groups. In 2007, for example, students gathered en masse to protest Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia University. The following year, organizations including Americans for a Safe Israel, the Catholic League, and the American Jewish Committee spoke out against Ahmadinejad attending a dinner organized by American Christian organizations, while the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and other Jewish groups staged a protest outside the U.N. In 2009, the year of Iran's disputed elections and mass protests, thousands of Iranians in exile descended on New York in what The Wall Street Journal called "the largest gathering of Iranians in exile since the early days of the Islamic Revolution." Last year, New York lawmakers like David Paterson and Kirsten Gillibrand lashed out at Ahmadinejad. Delegates have also walked out of Ahmadinejad's last two General Assembly addresses over the Iranian leader's remarks about Israel and 9/11
This year, by contrast, early reports of protests generally revolve around UANI's actions, though a few outfits like the pro-Israel group StandWithUs have also announced demonstrations. When it emerged that Ahmadinejad and his delegation would be staying at the Warwick Hotel in Manhattan, for example, UANI demanded that the hotel deny Ahmadinejad accommodation and set up an email submission form so that others could express their outrage and threaten a boycott of the luxury hotel (the group protested his stay at the Hilton last year). "Ahmadinejad is the leader of a criminal regime allied with al-Qaeda and other terrorists, and guilty of atrocious human rights violations," the group said in a statement. "Would the Warwick be willing to accommodate Osama bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri were he to visit Manhattan?" The Warwick, for its part, has not confirmed that Ahmadinejad is a guest (it does boast on its website that the hotel has always "appealed to celebrities" like The Beatles and Elvis Presley), but it appears the hotel ultimately decided to host the Iranian leader. Reuters caught Ahmadinejad's SUV convoy arriving at the establishment last night:
UANI has also mounted an inflammatory billboard in Times Square and, more recently, on the back of a truck that will drive around near the U.N. and Warwick Hotel. Like the letter to the Warwick, the billboard invokes al-Qaeda by calling Ahmadinejad the militant group's "silent partner." While the U.S. government did accuse Iran in July of secretly partnering with al-Qaeda, links between the two entities have not been conclusively proven (a page on UANI website probes the nexus between Iran and al-Qaeda).
UANI penned an angry letter to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger as well when reports suggested last week that a student group called the Columbia International Relations Council and Association might dine privately with Ahmadinejad during his visit. The group, which has previously forced companies like Caterpillar to sever trading ties with Iran, has turned its website into a hub for its current campaign against Ahmadinejad:
It's worth pointing out that UANI is not some fringe group. The organization was founded in 2008 by foreign policy big shots like former American ambassadors to the U.N. Mark Wallace and Richard Holbrooke, former C.I.A. Director Jim Woolsey, and Middle East diplomat Dennis Ross. Its board includes former Bush Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend, the Council on Foreign Relations' Walter Russell Mead, and Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami.
So, will UANI's multipronged but largely solitary assault on Ahmadinejad morph into more widespread protest in the coming days? Or is the Iranian leader, who appears to be engaged in a power struggle back home, no longer the target he once was? If history is any guide, it's certainly possible that more controversy will develop. Ahmadinejad addresses the General Assembly tomorrow.