Thursday, September 21, 2006

Iranian President Uses U.N. General Assembly Platform to Try to Improve His Image

Scheherezade Faramarzi, New
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to be enjoying the spotlight at this year's U.N. General Assembly, easing his way into the international arena and trying to improve his image amid the controversy over his nuclear program and remarks about Israel and the Holocaust. When an Israeli reporter challenged him into answering a question at a news conference Thursday, Ahmadinejad at first stalled, whispered in Farsi to an adviser to skip the reporter, but then reluctantly gave his response.

He showed no such courtesy to an Israeli reporter during a news briefing here last year.

On Thursday, he explained that when he called for the destruction of Israel and dismissed the Holocaust as a myth, his issue was not with the Jewish people but with Zionists, ''who are not Jews.'' READ MORE

''We love everyone in the world - Jews, Christians, Muslims, non-Muslims, non-Jews, non-Christians,'' he said. ''We are against ugly acts,'' he said.

''Everyone is respected. But I repeat, we are against aggression, occupation, killings. ... We declare this in a loud voice,'' he said.

But Yaniv Halily, a reporter with Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth was not impressed.

''He's trying to portray an image of a nice guy after all the things he said about Israel. Now he knows everyone thinks he's a bad guy,'' said Halily.

''He may sound nicer on the surface, but on the inside he's the same,'' said Kamran Dadkhah, an economics professor at Northeastern University in Boston.

Ahmadinejad was vague when asked if Iran would stop arming Hezbollah and comply with a U.N. Security Council resolution to disarm the Lebanese guerrilla group, which fought a 34-day war with Israel this summer. He said Iran gives only spiritual and cultural support to the Shiite Muslim group.

''We support ... peace and permanent stability in Lebanon, and we will fall short of no measure in promoting this goal. Whether it's in the cultural or spiritual support that we can render or whether it is the role that we can play in the international arena, we will do our best. And this is the fundamental principle of our foreign policy, and it does not preclude Lebanon,'' he said.

At the news conference, Ahmadinejad also expressed love and affection for the American people, just as President Bush reached out to the Iranian people a couple of days earlier. Ahmadinejad said he wished he had more time here to spend with them in person.

''The people of the United States are highly respected by us,'' he said. ''Many people in the United States believe in God and believe in justice.'' He thanked the New York City police and security forces for protecting him during his stay here and apologized to New Yorkers for traffic disruptions from the arrival of world leaders to attend the U.N. General Assembly session.

He reserved his harsh words for the U.S. government - for its position on Iran's nuclear program and its role as one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

''It's not the nuclear bomb that the American government is worried about, for there are countries in our region that are armed with a nuclear bomb and are incidentally supported by the U.S. government. Now, how is this?'' said Ahmadinejad..

Using a Persian expression to demonstrate U.S. double-standard, the Iranian leader said:

''In Iran, we say there are two skies over a roof, or two kinds of wind running over the same ceiling. It doesn't seem plausible.

''We say if fuel cycle for peaceful purposes is something good, then it should be good for everyone. If it's a bad thing, it's bad for everyone,'' he said.

Ahmadinejad said the United States' objection to Iran's nuclear program - which he claims is for peacefully purposes only - was essentially aimed at aborting his country's progress. And he said if the world stops treating his country as a subordinate, then things might be different.

''If they recognize that we too, as a nation, have rights ... the concerns too will be removed,'' he said.

But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iran must suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing before any full-fledged negotiations.

''Iran has been told by the international community ... that they should suspend and if they suspend the negotiations can begin. It's as simple as that. I don't think we need any further conditionality,'' she told reporters after a Security Council meeting on Mideast peace.

Although the Iranian president seemed to tone down his rhetoric about Israel, he did not retract his earlier remarks. He said he was even puzzled by the controversy.

''It seems to me that I face this question wherever I go,'' he said. ''And I have always been ready to answer.''