Iran's President Does What U.S. Diplomacy Could Not

By Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 19, 2005

NEW YORK, Sept. 18 -- Five weeks ago, Iran's new president bought his country some time. Facing mounting criticism after walking away from negotiations with Europe and restarting part of Iran's nuclear program, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked the world to withhold diplomatic pressure while he put together new proposals.

On Saturday, dozens of international diplomats, including the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, gathered at the United Nations to hear how Ahmadinejad planned to stave off a crisis.

Instead his speech, followed by a confused hour-long news conference, was able to do what weeks of high-level U.S. diplomacy had not: convince skeptical allies that Iran may, in fact, use its nuclear energy program to build atomic bombs.

Ahmadinejad appeared to threaten as much when he warned from the General Assembly podium that in the face of U.S. provocation, "we will reconsider our entire approach to the nuclear issue."

Senior European diplomats said immediately afterward that the speech had been "unhelpful." In fact, the opposite may be true.

"The effect of that speech will likely be a toughening of the international response to Iran because it was seen by so many countries as overly harsh, negative and uncompromising," Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns said in an interview Sunday. "The strategic aim of a great many countries is to see Iran suspend its nuclear program and return to peaceful negotiations with the Europeans."

A European diplomat, who could discuss strategy only on the condition of anonymity, echoed Burns's remarks.

"There's no question this will make our case stronger and our task easier," when board members of the International Atomic Energy Agency meet Monday in Vienna to discuss Iran's case.

During his 25 minutes Saturday, Ahmadinejad delivered what began as a sermon praising the prophets of Islam, Christianity and Judaism and then descended into anti-American vitriol, conspiracy theories and threats.

He expressed doubt that the deadly attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, were really carried out by terrorists. He said Americans had brought the devastation of Hurricane Katrina upon themselves and that the U.S. military was purposely poisoning its own troops in Iraq.

There were quotes from the Koran, angry finger pointing and attacks on Israel interlaced with talk of justice and tranquility. There was a staunch defense of Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy, and to enrich uranium to fuel that program. There were no new proposals and little detail about old ones that were reoffered.

For much of last week, Iran had been the subject of endless backroom negotiations and public diplomacy, and at times, Tehran appeared to have the upper hand. But by the time the Iranian leader was headed for John F. Kennedy International Airport on Saturday night, U.S. and European officials were regaining confidence and putting together a new strategy designed to isolate Iran.

Burns met with British, German and French officials on Sunday in New York to discuss ways to bring around enough members of the IAEA board to report Iran to the U.N. Security Council, which has the authority to impose sanctions.

The United States has long advocated such a strategy but still does not have the support of India, Russia or China, or a "next steps" policy if the matter does end up in the Security Council.

Diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the most likely outcome of the week-long meeting in Vienna would be a deadline resolution giving Iran several weeks to reverse course and demonstrate transparency with U.N. nuclear inspectors, or face the consequences of Security Council action.

Iran has consistently maintained that its program is designed to produce nuclear energy, not weapons. IAEA nuclear inspectors have not found any evidence of a weapons program but several serious questions about the scale, scope and history of the program remain unanswered and have fueled suspicion that Iran is concealing information.

Ahmadinejad's speech, his first major international address as a world leader, highlights a dramatic and conservative shift in foreign affairs for Iran under the new president's leadership. Several diplomats noted that his defiant comments were strikingly different in tone and substance from those delivered from the same podium three months ago by Kamal Kharrazi, who was Iran's foreign minister until Ahmadinejad was elected this summer.

Kharrazi, who addressed a conference on the future of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, spoke in English in an effort to reach an international audience, rather than in Persian, which is spoken almost exclusively in Iran. Although Kharrazi also defended Iran's program, which was built in secret over 18 years and exposed in 2002, he did so without threats.

That text, written by Iranian diplomats eager to see reform of political and religious life, won over countries unsure about Iran's intentions. Tehran declared victory shortly afterward when the IAEA board decided against reporting the country's nuclear program to the Security Council.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company