Iran's president tries to defuse tensions

Ahmadinejad arrives for visit, says nation does not want nuclear arms or war with U.S.

September 24, 2007|By Bay Fang | Bay Fang,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- The agenda for the United Nations General Assembly, which officially begins tomorrow, is filled with thorny issues ranging from Darfur to global climate change. But much of the intrigue this year will be focused on the conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in New York yesterday, greeted by protesters who called him a "Hitler wannabe." He has launched a public relations campaign, planning not only to speak before the UN assembly for the third year in a row, but also to give a talk at Columbia University's World Leaders Forum today, where he will take questions from the audience. His request to lay a wreath at the World Trade Center site was denied by New York officials.

In a 60 Minutes interview taped in Iran on Thursday, Ahmadinejad denied that his country was working toward a nuclear bomb. "Well, you have to appreciate we don't need a nuclear bomb. We don't need that. What need do we have for a bomb?" he said. "In political relations right now, the nuclear bomb is of no use. If it was useful it would have prevented the downfall of the Soviet Union."

The 62nd General Assembly unofficially began with high-profile gatherings over the weekend on Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East peace process. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon co-hosted a high-level meeting Saturday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, and the major Western powers.

The show was as important as the substance. It was "a demonstration of international support for reconstruction and stability in Iraq," said Samir Sumaidaie, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States. "It is very important that the international community makes this statement, and the best time and manner is at the U.N."

At the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki sat on opposite sides of the room and did not interact.

A senior administration official familiar with the proceedings said that while nearly all the delegations pledged to help Iraq, the presentation given by Mottaki was filled with anti-American rhetoric. In a briefing after the meeting, David Satterfield, a senior adviser to Rice and coordinator for Iraq, said Iran's actions in Iraq belied any pledge its leaders might have made.

"What they are doing on the ground is continuing to supply arms and training on arms to the most violent, most lethal, most radical elements in Iraq," he said. "We don't believe this is consistent with a pledge to support reconciliation."

Rice is expected this week to emphasize the need for support against Iranian intervention in Iraq. The U.S. is pushing for a third U.N. resolution that would increase the sanctions imposed on Iran.

While the spectacle of the speeches often dominates the week, the bulk of the business usually is done on the sidelines - in the official bilateral meetings as well as the unofficial chats.

"The main thing about the General Assembly is that anybody can meet with anyone to talk about anything," said Edward Luck, author of UN Security Council: Practice and Promise. "You just go to a meeting room and have a cup of tea. No one on the outside needs to know."

That's unlikely to happen between the U.S. and Iran.

"Any diplomatic breakthrough won't be spearheaded by Ahmadinejad. He's more into the public spectacle," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It will more likely happen with chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani."

Yesterday, Rice attended a foreign-minister level meeting on international support for Afghanistan and then met with the other representatives of the so-called Quartet helping to mediate the peace process in the Middle East to discuss a peace meeting that President Bush is planning this fall. The U.S. will invite Syria to the conference, Bush administration officials said yesterday.

Bay Fang writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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