Iranian Leader Fails To Ease Tensions

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, arrives with his delegation for a meeting with Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega at the United Nations.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, arrives with his delegation for a meeting with Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega at the United Nations. (By David Karp -- Associated Press)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 26 -- After several days of controversy, heckling and vitriolic headlines in the local tabloid newspapers, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to New York was capped Wednesday by a 76 to 22 U.S. Senate vote calling on the Bush administration to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

The congressional rebuke a few hours before Ahmadinejad's Iran Air 747 departed reflected what American scholars and Iranians alike depicted as a missed opportunity by the Iranian president to ease mounting tensions between Iran and the West, particularly the United States.

"He had an opportunity to present himself to the American people in a way that would make conflict less likely. And I don't think he succeeded," said John H. Coatsworth, the Columbia University dean who moderated a speech in which Ahmadinejad insisted on Iran's right to pursue uranium enrichment for a nuclear energy program, denied the existence of Iranian gays, and defended additional research on whether the Holocaust occurred.

Although Ahmadinejad told the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday that Iran considers its nuclear plans "closed" to further debate, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice planned to be in New York for a meeting this week of the five veto-wielding U.N. powers, plus Germany, to discuss the scope and timing of new international sanctions against Iran for failing to comply with a U.N. mandate to suspend uranium enrichment.

Members of the United Nations are concerned that Iran could divert its enrichment program to eventually develop a nuclear weapon.

U.S. officials said Ahmadinejad's speech gave them new ammunition to argue for more punitive steps than the Russians and Chinese have been willing to accept. "I am sorry to tell President Ahmadinejad that the case is not closed," said Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns in New York. "The Iranian president is badly mistaken if he thinks the international community is going to forget about the fact that his country is continuing -- against the will of the U.N. Security Council -- its nuclear research programs."

But Ahmadinejad, who was elected in 2005, seemed mostly untroubled by the reaction to his conversations with American academics, religious leaders, think-tank chiefs, media and even former U.S. officials.

At the Tuesday dinner, Ahmadinejad fended off direct challenges about his statements on the Holocaust, Iran's human rights practices, and its long-term nuclear intentions. Warned by Clinton administration National Security Council staff member Gary Samore that the risk of a military confrontation will increase over the next six months without a change by Iran on its nuclear program and aid to Iraqi militias, Ahmadinejad was dismissive.

"I don't think the risk of war has increased. What problems can be solved by war?" he said.

The Iranian leader also seemed unworried about possible sanctions legislation moving forward in 15 U.S. states, requiring companies to divest holdings in Iranian enterprises. On press freedom, he shot back that the number of papers publishing in Iran is large compared with the few that have been shut down.

As in all his appearances in New York, Ahmadinejad drifted off into a religious discussion that seemed to underscore the cultural and political chasm. After listening to the U.S. scholars and journalists, he said he first wanted to outline his views on mankind. "I believe God created the entire universe for mankind. Mankind is the most valuable creation on earth," he told the somewhat surprised gathering.

Questioned about the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad once again called for more research into the subject. After being told that he is often compared to Hitler by Americans, Ahmadinejad said that the German leader was a "despicably dark" force who had caused "irreversible harm" in a war that claimed 60 million lives. He said Hitler had no concept of justice or human dignity.

"Iranians find the Western reaction insulting and a sign of belligerence, but Ahmadinejad has also not emerged as a statesman or a diplomat," said Vali Nasr of Tufts University. "The Iranian blogs and chat rooms are clearly taken aback not just by the comments [at Columbia] but by the headlines of tabloids. . . . He has tried to reach out to Americans, but to a large measure he has failed -- and the Iranian political elite know he has failed."

Speaking to reporters in New York, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal warned about the dangers of rhetoric from all sides. "Definitely what we are seeing is a confrontation in the making," he said. "The Iranian rhetoric also reflects this precipitousness towards confrontation, that 'we can take care of ourselves' and language like that. . . . It is a tense and dangerous situation in a volatile area."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company