Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Annan Stunned by Ahmadinejad During Tehran Visit

James Bone, The Times Online:
A bottle of wine could be all that saves President Bush from a nasty face-to-face encounter at the UN today with his rival, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran.

The two leaders, at odds over Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear programme, are scheduled to speak hours apart on the opening day of the annual UN General Assembly. After delivering his address at 11.30am local time, Mr Bush plans to attend the traditional banquet for visiting presidents, princes and prime ministers.

A total of 144 world leaders and their foreign ministers will gather for a feast of smoked salmon, tournedo Rossini and chocolate-banana sundae, providing ample opportunity for unexpected diplomatic encounters. It was at a similar gathering in 2000 that Bill Clinton became the first US President to shake hands with Fidel Castro, the President of Cuba.

But Mr Ahmadinejad, Iran’s devout Islamist leader, said that he will not attend the luncheon because alcohol is being served: a 2004 Patriarche Père & Fils Pouilly Fuissé and a 2004 Château Grand Moulinet Pomerol, to be exact. Not that Mr Bush will be imbibing either, as he is also teetotal. READ MORE

The Iranian President, arriving in New York from a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Cuba, is scheduled to speak at the UN tonight. His speech comes after comments by President Chirac of France calling on the UN to drop the threat of sanctions against Iran if it suspended uranium enrichment.

Mr Ahmadinejad made his debut on the world stage with a mystical speech at last year’s General Assembly, later telling a cleric that he felt an aura on him as he spoke.

This month the Iranian leader stunned Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, during a stop in Tehran on his Middle East tour. According to a diplomat with detailed knowledge of the meeting, Mr Ahmadinejad railed against Britain and the US. “Things have changed and they have to know it. They can scold us, they can shout at us, but they cannot damage us,” the Iranian leader is quoted as saying.

On the nuclear stand-off Mr Ahmadinejad said that the big powers had lost the trust of the Iranian people and demanded concessions.The other side needs to make some gesture towards us,” he said.

On Iraq Mr Ahmadinejad said that the US presence had become the problem and asked Mr Annan to tell American officials that Iran was ready to help them to withdraw.

On Lebanon he suggested that Britain and the US should pay reparations to the Lebanese for backing Israel, and cast doubt on Iran’s readiness to cut off its suspected arms shipments to Hezbollah.

“I often ask myself what would happen if Hezbollah did not exist. Beirut would be Gaza. Everyone knows the expansionist intentions of Israel. Why should we disarm Hezbollah? It’s an internal matter. Let the Lebanese decide,” he said.

The Iranian leader challenged Mr Bush recently to a televised debate on world issues — a proposal that was repeated yesterday. The call for a TV debate sparked fears that Mr Ahmadinejad might try to upstage Mr Bush at the UN.

Officials will seek to prevent any unscripted encounters. The Iranian leader is not invited to the reception that the President is hosting tonight for visiting world leaders.

Mr Bush is expected to make Iran the centrepiece of his speech, with a fresh warning that Tehran’s ambition to develop nuclear weapons makes it a grave threat.

Washington signed up to an international package of incentives offered to Iran in July to halt its uranium enrichment work by an August 31 deadline.

But the Bush Administration rejects any direct talks until Iran agrees to the suspension. The President will hold talks today with M. Chirac, who suggested yesterday that he was not ready to back UN sanctions: “I don’t believe in a solution without dialogue. I am not pessimistic. I think that . . . we can find solutions through dialogue.”

One option reportedly under consideration is for EU foreign ministers to meet with Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, in New York later this week, effectively starting talks. The US would join once Iran suspends its enrichment programme.