Iran's leader softens anti-U.S. rhetoric

Ahmadinejad is conciliatory in first news conference since nuclear program report

December 12, 2007|By Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi | Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TEHRAN, Iran -- In his first formal news conference since a U.S. intelligence report last week undercut claims that Iran was secretly developing nuclear weapons, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struck an unusually mild tone yesterday, calling for dialogue with the United States and forgoing his usual anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric.

He also denied that Iran had resumed a secret nuclear weapons program, a claim made by an Iranian exile group, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. The group, listed by the State Department and the European Union as a terrorist organization, cited unidentified sources in Iran as saying the Islamic republic restarted its program in 2004. A U.S. National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, released last week concluded that Iran halted its weapons program in 2003. Iran denies ever having had a weapons program.

Ahmadinejad initially gloated over the report as vindication for Iran, although it said his country continues to enrich uranium and that Iran easily could restart its weapons program. But at Tuesday's two-hour news conference, Ahmadinejad described the report as "a positive and forward step" by the United States to ease tensions in the Middle East.

"We do hope there will be one or two steps forward so as to make a different atmosphere for finding solutions," he said. "If further steps are taken, then our problems will be less complicated."

Many officials in Iran viewed the intelligence estimate as an olive branch, and some analysts have urged the Iranian leadership to take this opportunity to enhance ties or at least reopen channels of communication, which have been locked in a hostile relationship since the 1979 revolution here.

U.S. and Iranian officials are set to meet Dec. 18 in Baghdad, Iraq's capital, for the fourth round of talks over securing Iraq. Such meetings usually have been preceded by chest-thumping and accusations by both sides. But at yesterday's news conference, his eighth since taking office in 2005, Ahmadinejad expressed confidence that the meetings eventually would produce positive results for bolstering security in Iraq.

Regardless of what the NIE concluded, Iran still faces the prospect of a third round of international sanctions over its enrichment of uranium. A team of International Atomic Energy Association experts arrived Sunday in Tehran in an attempt to clear up lingering questions over the country's nuclear program, which Iran insists is for energy but the West suspects is a cornerstone for an eventual weapons program.

Iran's nuclear program and political and material support for armed groups fighting Israel have brought it under heightened international scrutiny. Ahmadinejad and his circle also have come under pressure from Iran's fractured political class.

Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi write for the Los Angeles Times.

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