By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
TEHRAN, Aug. 31 -- With weeks to go until a U.S. deadline for opening talks, a spokesman for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Monday that he plans to travel to New York to give a speech during the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23. The announcement came as international pressure continued to build for sanctions unless Iran is willing to negotiate over its nuclear program.
The visit will roughly coincide with a Sept. 15 deadline set by the White House for Iran to respond to an offer to open talks on the nuclear issue. It will be Ahmadinejad's first visit to a Western country since the country's June election, which was officially declared a landslide in his favor but which the opposition contends was stolen. The vote led to weeks of demonstrations, with dozens of protesters dying after security forces violently cracked down. President Obama condemned the violence but stopped short of siding with opposition demands that the election be annulled.
In Berlin on Monday, German and French leaders emphasized that Iran must respond to international concerns about its nuclear program soon or face the consequences.
"Initiatives must be taken during the month of September which take account of Iran's will or otherwise to cooperate," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. If Iran does not respond, he said, "Germany and France will be united in calling for a strengthening of sanctions."
Ahmadinejad has regularly attended the U.N. summit since he was elected in 2005. His speeches in New York have been controversial and have generally been met with protests.
U.N. officials confirmed Ahmadinejad's attendance and said he will be accorded the same honors due any other head of state. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recently took a step toward recognizing Ahmadinejad's disputed electoral victory by sending him a customary diplomatic letter on the occasion of his inauguration.
U.S. officials said that the United States respects U.N. invitations to even the most controversial foreign dignitaries and that they assumed Ahmadinejad would have his visa approved for travel to the United States this time. But the prospects for direct talks with the Iranian leadership appeared dim in light of the violent post-election crackdown. In July, the United States disinvited Iranian diplomats from attending Fourth of July celebrations at American diplomatic missions and embassies.
Ahmadinejad press adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr declined to comment on the Iranian government's position on the U.S. offer of talks. Iranian leaders, who are reeling from the worst political crisis since the 1979 revolution, have said they need more evidence that U.S. policies have shifted in their favor before they agree to negotiate.
"Iran won't recognize any unilaterally set deadline," said Mohammad Marandi, head of the department of North American studies at the University of Tehran. "It is planning to give a set of proposals to solve outstanding issues in the near future."
Ahmadinejad is just one of several controversial leaders who will attend the U.N. event, including Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, whose government holds the presidency of the General Assembly's 65th session. China's president, Hu Jintao, will also address the General Assembly, the first time a Chinese head of state has delivered a speech during the annual session.
On Farsi-language Web sites, Iranian expatriates have already called for demonstrations, and opposition leaders in Iran said they expect the protests in New York to be much more intense than in previous years because of the disputed election. The government's crackdown against the opposition has recently united a large portion of the traditionally divided Iranian exile community. But Javanfekr dismissed any protests as insignificant.
"The Americans use every chance they get to show their enmity against the Iranian Revolution," Javanfekr said in an interview. "The opposition groups residing in the U.S. are just pawns used in these circumstances."
In 2007, Ahmadinejad used his visit to New York to speak at Columbia University, where the university's president introduced him as a "cruel and petty dictator." Last year, Ahmadinejad accused Western nations of trying to deprive Iran of its nuclear program. Obama and other U.S. officials have said they want to stop Iran from developing nuclear capacity because they do not believe Iran's assertion that the technology will be used only for peaceful purposes.
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations and special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie in Tehran contributed to this report.