Newly elected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, making his first trip to the United States, introduced himself to the U.S. media Thursday morning, displaying a dash of defiance at U.S. charges over Iran's nuclear program and a warning that the era of big-power dominance in international relations has ended.
Meeting over breakfast with about a dozen journalists in a Midtown Manhattan hotel conference room, Ahmadinejad blamed the Bush administration's policies for instability in Iraq. A veteran of Iran's war against Iraq, the president described the removal of Saddam Hussein as "necessary" but said the task should have been left to Iraqis.
"It is the occupiers who have responsibility for stability in Iraq," he said, adding later, "The root of the problem is the presence of foreign troops."
Ahmadinejad, who was an obscure provincial politician when he was elected mayor of Tehran in 2003, was the surprise winner in June's presidential elections. His anonymity outside Iran has helped keep alive accusations that he was photographed with American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in 1979, a charge repeated during his visit here and categorically denied by the president over breakfast.
Seeming relaxed in a tan sports jacket and open collar but initially almost timid, Ahmadinejad, 49, opened his session with journalists expressing condolences for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. He said he was puzzled by how the storm received its name. "The letter K," offered CBS News's Mike Wallace, launching a discussion of the idiosyncratic American practice of personifying some of the nation's most destructive natural disasters.
Later, Ahmadinejad returned to the subject of Katrina to poke at the Bush administration's response and perhaps draw lessons about solidarity among Americans. He compared the delivery of aid to victims in the Gulf Coast unfavorably with the response to natural disasters in the Islamic republic.
"When this hurricane occurred we were all were extremely sad," Ahmadinejad said, speaking through a translator. "We thought Americans would act more quickly and help their fellow Americans. We expected more." He added: "During the very first day of the hurricane, people could have brought more and limited the extent of the tragedy."
Perhaps the most contentious issue Ahmadinejad faces during this visit is continuing opposition from the United States and European Union to Iran's nuclear program. Iran insists the program -- developed in secret for 18 years -- is for peaceful energy use; the Bush administration charges a crash nuclear weapons project is hidden beneath the veneer of a peaceful program.
The United States had hoped to win referral of the matter to the U.N. Security Council at next Monday's meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but U.S. officials failed to win broad support for such a move during talks here this week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Ahmadinejad said he had arrived with new proposals to resolve the impasse but declined to reveal them in advance of their public unveiling Saturday. He said Iran had no intention of building nuclear weapons but asserted that every nation had a right to develop nuclear power.
"We believe that atomic energy is a blessing given by God; it is an opportunity given to all nations," he said, adding that "any improper use of production for nuclear arms should be prevented."
During his discussions with other leaders here, Ahmadinejad has advanced the idea of transferring "nuclear know-how to the Islamic countries due to their need," according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.
During the breakfast, Ahmadinejad said there is "no proof of a violation by Iran" of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, "just an allegation." He complained: "How can you prove you are not a bad person? You can't prove that."
Ahmadinejad's visit here has been dogged by protesters asserting that, as a student leader, he played a role in the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and seizure of U.S. hostages during the 1979 Iranian revolution. "This is an allegation that has absolutely no basis," he said. Alluding to the power of the media gathered at the breakfast, he added: "Sometimes I read rumors about the president of Iran -- and I laugh at them."
Asked his impressions of the United States, Ahmadinejad said it is a large, rich and diverse country but "the attitude of the American government has created problems with other countries." The United States "should not humiliate others, should not consider itself superior to others," he said. "We think the era of utilization of force and pressure in international relations has ended. Today, the will of the people will prevail, as it did in the election in Iran."