Iran General NewsIran leader begins New York charm offensive

Iran leader begins New York charm offensive

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The Times: The President of Iran has arrived in New York on a controversial charm offensive to convince the American people that they have nothing to fear from his country.
Times Online

Jenny Booth and agencies

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The President of Iran has arrived in New York on a controversial charm offensive to convince the American people that they have nothing to fear from his country.

In an interview broadcast on American television yesterday, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran was neither building a nuclear bomb nor headed to war with the United States.

The interview was taped in Iran last week, part of the Iranian leader’s preparations to appeal directly to US voters over the heads of their leaders, amid rising tension at diplomatic levels and talk of war.

Before leaving Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad said that the American people had been denied “correct information” and that his visit would give them a chance to hear a different voice, the official IRNA news agency reported.

Today the Iranian president is due to speak at Columbia University in New York, and tomorrow he will address the General Assembly of the United Nations, his third such speech in three years. He had hoped to lay a wreath at the site of the September 11 bombings, but this was blocked by city officials on security grounds.

Yesterday civic leaders and elected officials demonstrated outside Columbia, and the protests were today expected to spread to the United Nations.

One protester, New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, said: “He should be arrested when he comes to Columbia University, not invited to speak, for God’s sake.”

Columbia’s invitation to such a controversial figure, who has denied the Holocaust and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, has been criticised by politicians and religious groups, but the university has not backed down – unlike last year, when a similar visit was cancelled.

The university’s president, Lee Bollinger, has promised that before he allows the Iranian leader to speak he will subject him to tough questioning on subjects such as human rights, the Holocaust and Iran’s nuclear programme.

Relations are poor between Washington and Tehran. America says that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons and accuses it of helping Shia militias in Iraq to attack US troops – claims that Iran denies.

“Well, you have to appreciate we don’t need a nuclear bomb. We don’t need that. What need do we have for a bomb?” Mr Ahmadinejad said in the interview with the CBS news programme 60 Minutes that was taped in Iran on Thursday.

“In political relations right now, the nuclear bomb is of no use. If it was useful it would have prevented the downfall of the Soviet Union.”

He also said that: “It’s wrong to think that Iran and the US are walking toward war. Who says so? Why should we go to war? There is no war in the offing.”

Mr Ahmadinejad has appealed to the American people before, distinguishing between the population and its government.

Recently, he told a television show that Iran wants peace and friendship with America. Since coming to power in 2005, Mr Ahmadinejad also has sent letters to the American people criticising President Bush’s policies in the Middle East.

Washington says that it is addressing the Iran situation diplomatically, rather than militarily, but US officials also say that all options are open.

The commander of the US military forces in the Middle East said he did not believe tensions will lead to war.

“No. I certainly hope not… This constant drum beat of conflict strikes me as not helpful and not useful,” Admiral William Fallon, head of US Central Command, said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television.

Politicians condemned Mr Ahmadinejad’s request to lay a wreath at the former World Trade Center site, saying that such a visit would violate sacred ground. President Bush backed the decision to block the visit, saying: “I can understand why they would not want somebody running a country who is the state sponsor of terror down at the site.”

Mr Ahmadinejad told 60 Minutes he would not press the issue but expressed disbelief that the visit would offend Americans.

After the September 11 attacks, hundreds of young Iranians held candlelight vigils in Tehran, he said. “Usually you go to these sites to pay your respects and also to perhaps air your views about the root causes of such incidents,” Mr Ahmadinejad told the network.

Mr Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York has also caused debate in Iran, where some have condemned it as a publicity stunt that would hurt Iran’s image in the world.

Political analyst Iraj Jamshidi said that Mr Ahmadinejad looked at the UN General Assembly as a publicity forum to indulge his harsh rhetoric.

“The world has not welcomed Mr Ahmadinejad’s hardline approach. His previous address to the assembly didn’t resolve any of Iran’s foreign policy issues and no one expects anything better this time,” he said.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a conservative politician, said that the trip gave Iran a chance to be heard.

“This trip gives the president a good chance to meet world leaders and inform them of Iran’s rightful position,” IRNA quoted Mr Boroujerdi as saying.

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