GENEVA – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Israel of being the “most cruel and racist regime,” sparking a walkout Monday by angry Western diplomats at a U.N. racism conference.
The hardline leader’s appearance overshadowed the substance of the weeklong United Nations attempt to stamp out intolerance worldwide. The United States and eight other Western countries, expressing concerns about its fairness, were already boycotting the event.
Protesters dressed with clown wigs and holding placards repeatedly interrupted Ahmadinejad’s speech with shouts of “Shame! shame!” and “Racist! racist!” throwing soft red objects on the podium. Later, about 100 members of mainly pro-Israel and Jewish groups blocked Ahmadinejad’s entrance to a scheduled news conference.
Ahmadinejad, in a rambling speech, accused Israel of being the “most cruel and racist regime” and pointed the finger at the United States and Europe for helping to establish the country after World War II “under the pretext of Jewish suffering.”
That prompted a walkout by some 40 diplomats from European countries such as Britain and France, which had threatened to leave the conference if it descended into anti-Semitic or other rhetoric harshly critical of Israel, which marred the U.N.’s last racism gathering.
The boycotting countries expressed concern that Muslim countries would drown out many issues with calls for a denunciation of Israel and a global ban on criticizing aspects of the Islamic faith.
“As soon as he started to address the question of the Jewish people and Israel, we had no reason to stay in the room,” said French Ambassador Jean-Baptiste Mattei.
Speaking directly after Ahmadinejad, Norway’s foreign minister said the Iranian leader’s comments “run counter to the very spirit of dignity of the conference.”
Ahmadinejad “has made Iran the odd man out,” Jonas Gahr Store said.
Even before his speech, Ahmadinejad polarized the meeting, which is intended to examine all forms of intolerance around the world.
Israel recalled its ambassador to Switzerland earlier Monday to protest Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz’s meeting with Ahmadinejad late Sunday during which Merz pressed the case of a jailed American journalist in Tehran.
“The meeting between the president of a democratic country with an infamous Holocaust-denier such as the president of Iran, who calls for Israel’s destruction, does not mesh with the values that Switzerland represents and that are supposed to be represented at the U.N. conference on racism,” the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
President Barack Obama said Sunday that the United States would communicate with Iran about journalist Roxana Saberi through its Swiss intermediaries, which have officially represented U.S. interests in Iran since the American hostage crisis that began in 1979. The Swiss government said it also took up other “unresolved cases” of U.S.-Iranian relations.
Ahmadinejad’s attendance has provoked outrage from Jewish groups and Israel, as he has in the past questioned the Holocaust and called for Israel’s destruction.