Ahmadinejad Skirts Nuclear Issue in Speech

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009 at U.N. headquarters in New York.
AP Photo/Richard Drew
Updated 8:49 p.m. EDT

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says his country is ready to shake all hands "that are honestly extended to us."

Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, he announced Iran's commitment to participate in building durable peace and security worldwide for all nations while defending the country's legitimate and legal rights.

This appeared to be a reference to Iran's nuclear program, which was not mentioned in his speech.

Ahmadinejad portrayed Iran as a defender of poor developing countries, lashing out at unbridled capitalism which he said has reached the end of the road and will suffer the same fate as Marxism. The U.S. delegation walked out.

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Gadhafi Hijacks Spotlight at U.N.
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Obama to Mideast Leaders: Time to Do More
Mark Knoller: Obama Frustrated, Impatient with Mideast Peace Process
Washington Unplugged: Don't Expect Much from U.N. Summit
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The Iranian leader's sometimes-rambling speech also touched on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, where he said foreign forces spread "war, bloodshed, aggression, terror and intimidation"; the U.N. Security Council, which he said needs to be reformed; and the recent "glorious and fully democratic election" in Iran.

Ahmadinejad did not specifically mention the issue of the country's nuclear program. Tehran has recently ratcheted down its rhetoric on the nuclear issue, echoing President Barack Obama's call for eliminating nuclear weapons, but it has shown no sign of ending what the U.S. considers a clandestine effort to develop a nuclear weapon.

In his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, Obama stuck to his two-pronged approach to Iran - acknowledging its right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy while warning of unspecified penalties if it veers onto the weapons path. (Read Obama's remarks in full.)

"We must insist that the future not belong to fear," he said.

Meanwhile, with a diplomatic wink and nod, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev opened the door Wednesday to backing potential sanctions against Iran as a reward to President Barack Obama's decision to scale back a U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe.

While U.S. and Russian officials denied a flat-out quid pro quo, Medvedev said Obama's pivot on the missile program long loathed by Moscow "deserves a positive response." Obama himself has said his missile decision created Russian good will.

"We believe we need to help Iran to take a right decision," Medvedev said as the two leaders met on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

The prospect of a unified U.S.-Russian stance on new sanctions would put Iran under added pressure to yield some ground on its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad has taken a softer tone on many matters since arriving in New York for the U.N. meetings, emphasizing his interest in improving relations with the United States and expressing an openness to include nuclear matters on the negotiations agenda.

He has given no sign, however, that his country is willing to bargain away its nuclear program, which he insists is for peaceful purposes only.

Obama's chief Russia adviser, Mike McFaul, told reporters after the meeting with Medvedev that there was no deal with Moscow on missile defense. But, pressed further, he said: "Is it the case that it changes the climate? That's true, of course. But it's not cause-and-effect."

A member of the Russian delegation, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Russians, said Moscow's final position on the question of imposing further sanctions would be determined, to a large extent, by Medvedev's consultations here.

The U.S. and Russia are among six countries that will hold talks in Europe next week with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. Obama wants to reserve the possibility of pursuing tougher sanctions if those meetings lead to no restraint by Iran in the weeks ahead. And yet Russia, which has strong economic ties with Tehran, has stood in the way of stronger action against Iran in the past.

In remarks to reporters with Medvedev at his side, Obama said both agree that negotiations with Iran are still the best approach.

"We also both agree that if Iran does not respond to serious negotiations and resolve this issue in a way that assures the international community that it's meeting its commitments, and is not developing nuclear weapons, then we will have to take additional actions and that sanctions, serious additional sanctions, remain a possibility," Obama said.

Medvedev told reporters that the intent is to move Iran in the right direction and to ensure that it does not obtain nuclear weapons.

"Sanctions rarely lead to productive results but in some cases are inevitable," he said through an interpreter.

Medvedev also mentioned that his government welcomed Obama's decision last week to scrap a Bush administration plan for a missile defense system to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic. He gave no indication that his remark about the sanctions on Iran was a diplomatic payoff for Obama's missile defense move.

The public rhetoric Wednesday on Iran's nuclear program suggested little improvement in the long-shot outlook for a diplomatic breakthrough next week when the U.S. will, for the first time, fully participate in European-led talks with Iran.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was meeting Wednesday with her counterparts from Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany to prepare for the Oct. 1 meeting in Geneva.

In his speech Obama did not mention the Geneva talks, which fulfill a campaign pledge to engage adversaries. He framed the Iran issue as central to his broader push to strengthen international limits on the spread of nuclear weapons.

Obama singled both Iran and North Korea, which has made more progress than Iran in becoming a nuclear power, as countries that now are at a crossroads.

"Those nations that refuse to live up to their obligations must face consequences," Obama said.

The risk for Obama, in the case of Iran, is that the government will use the new talks to stall for time even as international patience wears thin. That is essentially what has happened with North Korea, which agreed at one stage to dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities but then balked and has since defied the will of the U.N. by conducting underground nuclear tests and test-launching missiles.

Obama came into office promising a more vigorous diplomatic effort with Iran, which also stands accused by the U.S. of supporting international terrorism, undermining Mideast peace efforts and secretly supplying arms to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama has not ruled out the eventual use of military force to stop Iran, but his focus now is on diplomacy.

In the meantime, Iran is expected to continue expanding its capacity for enriching uranium, the building block of a nuclear weapon. Still, Ahmadinejad said Iran has no interest in nuclear weapons and favors a push for global nuclear disarmament.

"We are not pursuing a nuclear weapons program," he said in the AP interview Tuesday night at his New York hotel.

The Iranian leader insisted that it is the United States that bears the greatest burden in nuclear disarmament. The U.S., he noted, possesses thousands of weapons, is the only country in history to have used them in war and refuses to promise never to initiate another nuclear attack.

Iran, he said, is "the wrong address" for delivering international pressure to pull back.

Obama, however, indicated that Iran needs to clarify its intentions and the nature of its nuclear work by cooperating more fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. agency that is supposed to monitor nuclear programs to ensure they are not used to make weapons.

Countries that refuse such cooperation make the rest of the world less safe, Obama said.

"In their actions to date, the governments of North Korea and Iran threaten to take us down this dangerous slope," he said.

Diplomacy remains the preferred path to changing that direction, he added.

"But if the governments of Iran and North Korea choose to ignore international standards; if they put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of their own people; if they are oblivious to the dangers of escalating nuclear arms races in both East Asia and the Middle East - then they must be held accountable," he said.