The role of provocateur at this year's annual U.N. General Assembly in New York fell to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who suggested Thursday, among other things, that the U.S. government was behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that about 3,000 people.
UNITED NATIONS — The role of provocateur at this year’s annual U.N. General Assembly in New York fell to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who suggested Thursday, among other things, that the U.S. government was behind the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed about 3,000 people.
Ahmadinejad’s remarks were reported, as was the walkout by the U.S. and other delegations, and President Obama denounced Ahmadinejad’s claims as “hateful” and “offensive” in an interview Friday with BBC’s Persian news service, which has a significant audience in Iran.
Obama’s denunciation was seconded by usually mild-mannered U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as well as Britain’s deputy prime minister and others, perhaps suggesting Ahmadinejad’s annual antics at the meeting are wearing thin.
The Iranian leader’s comments, perhaps by design, diverted attention from a variety of real issues on world leaders’ plates, ranging from a possible new civil war in Sudan, fresh tensions in East Asia and Iran’s own suspected nuclear-weapons program.
Behind the furor, there were tentative signs of progress on the standoff over Iran’s enrichment of uranium, which could be used to fuel nuclear arms.
At a news conference Friday, Ahmadinejad said Iran’s negotiators might be willing to meet international counterparts next month to revive stalled talks. He also promised, as he has in the past, that Iran would halt enrichment if given uranium to fuel a civilian research reactor in Tehran.
U.S. officials reacted cautiously.
The European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has offered the Iranians a meeting since the U.N. Security Council approved new economic sanctions in June, “but has yet to receive an official response,” said Michael Hammer, a National Security Council spokesman. “But we aren’t interested in diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake,” Hammer said.
Senior U.S. and European officials have argued in recent weeks that the sanctions have hit Iran’s already-mismanaged economy hard, prompting an internal debate over the course of the country’s foreign policy.
Past diplomacy with Iran has yielded little, however, such as an abortive deal over the Tehran research reactor that was struck in talks in Geneva a year ago.
Also on Obama’s agenda Friday was Sudan. Africa’s largest country faces the threat of renewed civil war if, as expected, its semiautonomous south votes to secede in a referendum planned for January.
Obama, whom nongovernmental groups have accused of giving the issue insufficient attention, attended a high-level meeting on Sudan, the type of event presidents usually delegate to their secretaries of state.
“What happens in Sudan in the days ahead may decide whether a people who have endured too much war move forward toward peace or slip backward into bloodshed,” Obama told the leaders of 41 countries and international organizations.
Vice President Ali Osman Taha, of the central government in Khartoum, and South Sudan leader Salva Kiir agreed to hold the referendum Jan. 9 as scheduled and to respect the outcome.
It was Ahmadinejad’s remarks that echoed throughout the day, however.
“Once again, an issue of grave global concern has been overshadowed by the bizarre, offensive and attention-grabbing pronouncements by President Ahmadinejad from this podium yesterday,” British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the U.N. General Assembly.
“His remarks were intended to distract attention from Iran’s (nuclear) obligations and to generate media headlines,” Clegg said. “They deserve to do neither.”
It was left to Ban, the usually genteel U.N. chief, to plead, with some exasperation, for everyone to watch his or her tongue.
“Let us acknowledge that we live in a world where the smallest group can inflict large damage,” Ban said. “That damage can be multiplied by loose language in politics and beyond.”