TEHRAN - Iranians expressed dismay yesterday at the tough reception given to their president in New York, saying his host was rude and only fueled the image of the United States as a bully.
The scenes at Monday's question-and-answer session at Columbia University and the outpouring of venom toward President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by protesters during his visit could bolster the hard-line leader at a time of high tensions with Washington.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger's statement - including telling Ahmadinejad that he resembles a "petty and cruel dictator" - offended Iranians on many levels, not least that of simple hospitality. In traditions of the region, a host should be polite to a guest, no matter what he thinks of him.
The chancellors of seven Iranian universities issued a letter to Bollinger saying his "insult, in a scholarly atmosphere, to the president of a country with . . . a recorded history of 7,000 years of civilization and culture is deeply shameful."
They invited Bollinger to Iran, adding, "You can be assured that Iranians are very polite and hospitable toward their guests."
Ahmadinejad's popularity at home has been suffering, with many Iranians blaming him for failing to fix the faltering economy and for heightening the confrontation with the West with his inflammatory rhetoric.
But in the eyes of many Iranian critics and supporters alike, Ahmadinejad looked like the victim. He complained about Bollinger's "insults" and "unfriendly treatment" but kept a measured tone throughout the discussion.
"Our president appeared as a gentleman. He remained polite against those who could not remain polite," said Ahmad Masoudi, a grocery store customer at who had watched state television's version of the event, including Bollinger's remarks. Iranian Farsi channels did not air the event live.
Another customer in the store, Rasoul Qaresi, said Bollinger showed that even Americans "in a cultural position act like cowboys and nothing more."
Others thought Bollinger's words were unseemly for an academic setting. Tehran nurse Mahmoud Rouhi said the president was treated "like a suspect."
"I don't know why he stayed there and didn't leave," Rouhi said.