GENEVA – Dozens of Western diplomats walked out of a U.N. conference and a pair of rainbow-wigged protesters threw clown noses at Iran’s president Monday when the hard-line leader called Israel the “most cruel and repressive racist regime.”
The United States decried the remarks by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as hateful – reinjecting tension into a relationship that had been warming after President Barack Obama sought to engage Iran in talks on its nuclear program and other issues.
Ahmadinejad – the first government official to take the floor at the weeklong event in Geneva – delivered a rambling, half-hour speech that was by turns conciliatory and inflammatory. At one point he appealed for global unity in the fight against racism and then said the United States and Europe helped establish Israel after World War II at the expense of Palestinians.
“They resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless under the pretext of Jewish suffering,” he said.
Jewish groups had lobbied heavily for a boycott of the conference, warning it could descend into anti-Semitism or other anti-Israel rhetoric, which marred the last such conference eight years ago in South Africa.
The meeting turned chaotic almost from the start when the two wigged protesters tossed the 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.”
One of the protesters shouted “You are a racist!” before he and the other demonstrator were taken away by security.
Ahmadinejad interjected: “I call on all distinguished guests to forgive these ignorant people. They don’t have enough information.”
At the first mention of Israel, about 40 diplomats from Britain and France and other European Union countries exited the room.
Most of his remarks were not new but their timing and high profile could complicate U.S. efforts to improve ties with Iran. Alejandro Wolff, the U.S. deputy ambassador to the U.N., denounced what he called “the Ahmadinejad spectacle.”
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, asked by reporters about Ahmadinejad’s remarks, replied: “Obviously, the president disagrees vehemently with what was said, as, from some of the video I saw, so did many others.”
Gibbs said it proved that the United States was right to boycott the conference. Germany, Italy and at least six other countries also refused to attend the event, which began on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Ahmadinejad before his speech and said he had counseled the Iranian leader to avoid dividing the conference. Ban later said he was disappointed the speech was used “to accuse, divide and even incite,” directly opposing the aim of the meeting.