In U.N. Speech, Bush Softens Tone on Iran

By Michael Abramowitz and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 19 -- President Bush sought to assure the Iranian people that he wants a diplomatic solution to the impasse over their country's nuclear activities but warned that their leaders are obstructing progress by funding terrorism and pursuing nuclear weapons.

Striking a more conciliatory tone than in previous addresses on the subject, Bush said Tuesday that the United States has no objections to Iran achieving a "truly peaceful nuclear power program" and told the Iranians that he looks forward "to the day when you can live in freedom, and America and Iran can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace."

The comments on Iran were only a small part of the president's 20-minute address to the U.N. General Assembly, which was devoted to urging the world to support the forces of moderation and reform in the greater Middle East. Bush said he wanted to speak directly to people in the region, assuring Iraqis, Lebanese and Afghans of continued U.S. support for their efforts to build new democracies while telling Syrians that their government's support of Hamas and Hezbollah is "turning your country into a tool of Iran."

Bush also urged the United Nations to act quickly to deploy a robust peacekeeping force to the war-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan, apparently over the objections of the Sudanese government. Speaking to the people of Darfur, he said, "Your lives and the credibility of the United Nations is at stake."

But the dispute over Iran's nuclear program assumed center stage at the opening of the annual General Assembly session, which drew dozens of heads of state and foreign ministers and once again snarled Midtown Manhattan in traffic jams and widespread security precautions. On the sidelines of the session, Bush and U.S. diplomats continued to try to shore up support for new sanctions on Iran for its refusal to abide by a Security Council resolution insisting it halt uranium enrichment, a possible step toward building nuclear weapons.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the General Assembly several hours after Bush, and he accused the United States of rigging the United Nations to advance its own military and economic dominance and to oppress its weaker adversaries.

In his second such address to the world body, the Iranian leader charged that U.S. policies throughout the Middle East, including its support for Israel and the occupation of Iraq, have furthered human suffering in the region. He said the U.S. nuclear program poses a greater threat to international peace and security than Iran's program does.

Ahmadinejad dismissed assertions by Bush that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. "All our nuclear activities are transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eyes of IAEA inspectors," he said, referring to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

There had been considerable speculation at the United Nations about the possibility of a chance meeting between Bush and Ahmadinejad, but there were no encounters. The Iranian president did not appear in the General Assembly hall when Bush spoke, and he declined an invitation to appear at U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's annual luncheon of world leaders, which Bush attended. Diplomats said the Iranian leader does not appear at events at which alcohol is served.

For Bush, Tuesday's remarks seemed a different kind of exercise than his recent speeches on terrorism and Islamic radicalism in the Middle East. While he has used previous speeches to paint an alarming portrait of Iran -- he called it a "grave threat" to the world just two weeks ago in Salt Lake City -- on Tuesday he emphasized painting a more benign picture of U.S. intentions. Whether the effort will succeed is uncertain, given the long history of bitter feelings in Iran over past American interference in Iranian affairs, including the overthrow of an elected prime minister in 1953.

To the people of Iran, Bush said in his speech, "the United States respects you; we respect your country. We admire your rich history, your vibrant culture and your many contributions to civilization. You deserve an opportunity to determine your own future."

He added: "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."

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