Leaders Spar Over Iran’s Aims and U.S. Power

By JIM RUTENBERG and HELENE COOPER

New York Times

September 21, 2006

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 19 — President Bush and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, separated by several hours and oceans of perspective, clashed at the United Nations on Tuesday over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and each other’s place in the world.

The two leaders bookended a long day of speeches at the opening of the General Assembly, but seemed to speak past each other as European and American diplomats continued the delicate work of setting terms for talks with Iran over its uranium enrichment program.

Speaking near the prime time of television viewing, Mr. Ahmadinejad, tieless in his trademark off-white sport jacket, accused the United States — while for the most part avoiding naming it directly — of hegemony and hypocrisy, and said it did not seem to have the political will or ability to halt violence in Iraq.

He said that his nation was pursuing only a peaceful nuclear program, and that it was the United States that was using its nuclear weapons to intimidate the world. He said repeatedly that the United Nations Security Council was too beholden to the United States to control it.

“Excellencies, the question needs to be asked, if the governments of the United States or the United Kingdom, who are permanent members of the Security Council, commit aggression, occupation and violation of international law, which of the organs of the U.N. can take them to account?” Mr. Ahmadinejad said.

Speaking in the morning, Mr. Bush made a direct appeal to the Iranian people from the United Nations, telling them their leaders were misleading them about the United States’ intentions while using their national treasury to sponsor terrorists and build nuclear weapons.

“You deserve an opportunity to determine your own future,” Mr. Bush said during a roughly 20-minute address during the opening session of the General Assembly. “The greatest obstacle to this future is that your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation’s resources to fund terrorism and fuel extremism and pursue nuclear weapons.”

It was a rare moment of diplomatic theater between Mr. Bush and his leading Middle Eastern nemesis, a man whose nation is increasingly asserting itself in the region that lies at the heart of Mr. Bush’s foreign policy, and whose nuclear program is a subject of deep concern to the American, European, Chinese and Russian officials trying to rein it in.

Mr. Ahmadinejad had kept a low profile throughout the day, lending a sense of anticipation and buildup to an address that placed him, at least for a night, on an equal platform with President Bush.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, who saw his speech last year as a defining moment on the world stage, has called the Holocaust a myth and regularly inveighs against Israel and Jews. His country is in violation of a United Nations deadline to halt its uranium enrichment program.

His repeated references to what he called a lack of “legitimacy” at the Security Council appeared to set the stage for Iran to argue that the Security Council has no authority to impose sanctions against Tehran.

He referred to the United States as “the occupiers” when speaking of Iraq, “the big powers” when referring to the Security Council and “masters and rulers of the entire world” when referring to what he said was an imbalance between world powers and other countries.

He criticized America for not calling for a cease-fire during the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon this summer. “Apparently the Security Council can only be used to ensure the rights of the big powers,” the Iranian president said. “When the oppressed” are targeted, he said, “the Security Council must remain aloof and not even call for a cease-fire.”

Despite anticipation that Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Bush would perhaps have a chance encounter inside the United Nations complex, Mr. Ahmadinejad was not in the building for Mr. Bush’s address and did not attend a luncheon given by the secretary general, Kofi Annan.

Mr. Bush made his remarks hours before Mr. Ahmadinejad addressed the General Assembly himself, creating an expectation of a robust war of words by day’s end.

In an address tailored for both international and domestic consumption, Mr. Bush reiterated his demand that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment but added, “Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran’s pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program.”

It was unclear how many of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s constituents were in a position to hear Mr. Bush’s message, given tight state controls on media in Iran. Many residents have satellite dishes, but the government recently began a campaign to confiscate them; many also have access to the Persian-language broadcasts of Voice of America.

Mr. Bush also defended his foreign policy, exhorting the world leaders in attendance to join with him in his goal of transforming the Middle East by pushing for democracy there.

“From Beirut to Baghdad, people are making the choice for freedom,” Mr. Bush said. “And the nations gathered in this chamber must make a choice, as well: will we support the moderates and reformers who are working for change across the Middle East, or will we yield the future to the terrorists and extremists?

Aides said the speech was in essence a capstone to the series of addresses Mr. Bush has given over the last two weeks intended to refocus the nation’s attention on the threats of terrorism and the administration’s efforts to fight it.

Speaking to what he called “the broader Middle East,” Mr. Bush said, “Extremists in your midst spread propaganda claiming that the West is engaged in a war against Islam. This propaganda is false, and its purpose is to confuse you and justify acts of terror.”

Mr. Bush also met with President Jacques Chirac of France, and they pledged to continue working together on Iran. Mr. Chirac played down comments he made Monday that were interpreted as a sharp break with Mr. Bush, when he indicated that talks with Iran could begin at the same time as the suspension of uranium enrichment, an action the United States demands as a precondition for talks.

Still, in a sign of the uphill battle that is facing the United States as it tries to hold together its coalition seeking to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions, there was little talk of sanctions. Senior Bush officials had initially predicted a breakthrough on a sanctions resolution this week.

Mr. Chirac did not utter the word sanctions during his speech to the General Assembly, repeatedly emphasizing the need for continued talk as Iran continues to resist calls to suspend its program.

United States officials said they were willing to agree to a compromise in which a drive for sanctions at the Security Council would end at the same time the Iranians would end their enrichment program. But a senior Bush official cautioned Tuesday that it is far from certain whether Iran would agree.

“We believe there’s a debate going on within Iran,” the official said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, was supposed to arrive in New York for talks with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, on Sunday, and had still not arrived late Tuesday night.

In his remarks, Mr. Bush did not mention Mr. Ahmadinejad by name, directing his criticism at Iran’s “leaders” in general. White House officials disputed any suggestion that Mr. Bush had avoided using the Iranian president’s name so as not to inflame the situation.