PRAGUE (JTA) – An Iranian leader in the Czech capital who touted the achievements of his “peace-loving, democratic” nation received something he may not have expected in this former Communist country all too familiar with state propaganda: opposition.
At a lively public forum Monday sponsored by the Association of International Affairs, about 100 students and Czech citizens peppered the chairman of the Iranian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Alaaddin Borujerdi, with questions about his president’s call to “wipe Israel off the map” and the nuclear program in his country.
It was a reprise of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearance last month at Columbia University, albeit on a smaller scale.
Borujerdi was invited to the Czech Republic, which assumes the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union next year, by his counterpart, Jan Hamacek, for a mutual airing of ideas and grievances.
Some conservative Czech parliamentarians objected to the visit, but Hamacek said, “Only through dialogue can European countries see what exactly we are dealing with.”
The Czechs and Iranians met Tuesday to discuss the latter’s nuclear policy and demonization of Israel , as well as the possible placement of radar for a U.S. anti-missile defense system on Czech territory.
On Monday, the eloquent Borujerdi faced some less diplomatic talk. Among the dozen or so people who questioned Borujerdi, at least half expressed alarm over Ahmadinejad’s call for the destruction of Israel and suggestion that Jewish Israelis be relocated to Canada or Alaska.
Borujerdi, speaking in Farsi and listening to questions translated from Czech, never flinched at the questions. He also didn’t quite answer them and refused even to say the word “Israel.”
“The solution to the great suffering of the Palestinian people is for all of Palestine to hold a referendum on the future of their land. And Palestinians have the right to return to their land in keeping with a United Nations resolution,” he intoned.
Asked by one audience member if that meant wiping Israel off the map by referendum, Borujerdi reiterated the right of peoples everywhere for self-determination.
Borujerdi took unscripted questions while some of the other Iranian members of Parliament along for the trip looked on cautiously from the front section of the audience. Whenever questions about Israel surfaced, as they frequently did, some would scribble notes and run up to the podium to hand them to Borujerdi.
David Kraus, 22, a member of the Union of Jewish Students, said he was disgusted by Borujerdi’s promises to foster peace in the Middle East and his denials that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
“It reminds me of what Hitler was doing here in 1933 and 1935,” Kraus said. “Hitler said that all he wanted was the Sudetenland because there are Germans there, and that’s it.”
Hitler used the demand for the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia, as a pretext for invasion. Six months after the Sudetenland was ceded to the Germans, the Nazis marched into the rest of Czechoslovakia.
“Iran is trying to fool the world,” said Kraus, one of several Jewish students at the forum.
The Persian parliamentarian spent some 20 minutes expounding on how violence and weapons of mass destruction are incompatible with his country’s Islamic values.
“Human rights and democracy are our guiding principles,” Borujerdi offered, in what some audience members described as a surreal piece of theater. “We have tried to help promote democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Asked by JTA about funds Iran provides to Hamas, a terrorist group that targets Israelis, Borujerdi replied that Iran provided the Palestinians “first and foremost with emotional support.”
Some described the public forum as an undiplomatic but instructive welcome for the Iranian leader.
Clara Marina O’Donnell, a Middle East expert at the London-based Center for European Reform, said that while the Iranian president is unwelcome in most European quarters, visits by parliamentary delegations are not unusual.
“The argument goes that the European side will be better informed and that open criticism will be good for the [Iranians] to hear,” she said.
The bearded Borujerdi is considered a moderate in Iran’s Parliament, which at times has had a restraining influence on the all-powerful Supreme Council that runs the country. Parliamentary candidates have to be approved by the council before standing for elections.
“We are very concerned about what the Iranian president has said about Israel,” Hamacek said. “His unsettling words are a stain on the relations between the Czech people and Iran.”