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Columbia University dean imprisoned after speech in Tehran.

By 9.25.07

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A Columbia University dean was imprisoned immediately after a speech at the University of Tehran yesterday, exactly a year after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia at the dean's invitation.

John Coatsworth, dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, had been invited to speak at Iran's largest university by the president himself as a formal thank you for having allowed the controversial Iranian leader to speak at Columbia last year. Several groups had formally requested that Columbia cancel the event, but Coatsworth waved away their criticisms, saying the Iranian leader deserved to be heard and famously remarking that the university would let Adolf Hitler speak on campus if it could.

In Tehran yesterday, Coatsworth had just finished an hour-long speech about the importance of open inquiry and a free exchange of ideas when he was arrested by agents of the Iranian government.

"We believe he was arrested for criticizing the Ahmadinejad regime," said a U.S. State Department official who wished to remain anonymous. "It is a crime in Iran to utter untrue statements against the system."

Coatsworth spent a few minutes of his speech criticizing the Iranian government for shutting down opposition media organizations, imprisoning journalists and dissidents, and tolerating little in the way of open debate in the Western tradition. He did not criticize the president for pursuing nuclear weapons, arming terrorists or calling for the destruction of Israel.

"President Ahmadinejad must've interpreted those rather tame criticisms as false statements against his regime," the State Department official said. "Frankly, Coatsworth should have known he would provoke such a response. Ahmadinejad has arrested Americans before for saying or writing similar things."

Since Ahamdinejad's speech last September, which was followed by an address to the United Nations General Assembly, the Iranian president became a cause celebre among some American university students for his bold anti-Bush statements. A nationwide speaking tour followed, in which Ahmadinejad spoke to sold-out crowds of angry liberals at college campuses across America. Instead of getting hammered with "hard questions," as Coatsworth predicted, the Iranian leader was greeted with standing ovations for opposing Bush administration policies, especially the Iraq war.

At the University of California-Berkeley he even was lauded for providing terrorists in Iraq weapons they then used to kill American soldiers and Marines. Ahmadinejad posters became hot sellers at campus bookstores, coming in fifth behind Che Guevara, Bob Marley, Karl Marx, and a sixpack of Budweiser.

The Iranian president's standing in the world also rose. Other universities invited him to speak, as did high schools, think tanks, and even a San Francisco synagogue. He wrote a best-selling memoir, "If I Did Nuke Israel," and released a CD of duets with famous singers, including Neil Young, Natalie Maines, Melissa Etheridge and Willie Nelson. Ahmadinejad, who is fiercely anti-gay, was told after making the album that Etheridge is a lesbian, at which point he bathed for seven days straight, ordered all copies of the CD destroyed and banned Etheridge from entering Iran.

It is not known where Coatsworth was taken after his arrest. He has not been seen or heard from, and Iranian government spokesmen are not talking. However, it is believed that he is not enjoying the gourmet meal, police protection or other courtesies extended to Ahmadinejad during his visit to Columbia.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.