UNITED NATIONS—Amid high political theater, angry protests, and tough rhetoric, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week set up the next phase in the looming crisis over whether Iran will continue its disputed nuclear program. At issue now is whether the Bush administration can muster support to impose further international sanctions on Iran, either under the auspices of the U.N. Security Council or as a separate effort by like-minded allies.
The Iranian president gave plenty of fresh ammunition to Washington hawks, who press the case for a tougher American approach, even military action, to avert what they say is Iran's goal: to produce nuclear weapons. That is something that the United States, France, and Britain say cannot be accepted and has raised the prospect of preemptive military action if diplomacy fails.
But Ahmadinejad's defiance of the Bush administration, his grandstanding on Palestinian issues, his denial of Iran's arming Iraqi militias, and his assertions of Iran's benign intent—including a disavowal of nuclear weapons—may play well in much of the Mideast and complicate American diplomacy there.
Some analysts correctly point out that Ahmadinejad isn't the most powerful figure in Iran and that the attention he has received this week exaggerates his role. They say that a key issue like nuclear development rests with the nation's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and that there is evidence that Ahmadinejad is losing support at home because he has failed to deliver on promises to improve the economy.
Still, it is assumed that he spoke for the Iranian leadership in his formal remarks to the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly, in which he declared the issue of his country's controversial nuclear program "closed"—signaling continued defiance of Security Council demands that Iran cease making nuclear fuel.
Ahmadinejad's tough speech before the world body on Tuesday suggests that U.S.-led financial and political pressures are nowhere near persuading Iran to stop work related to uranium enrichment or eventual plutonium reprocessing. That is the prerequisite the Bush administration and European powers have set for opening full direct talks with Iran. The hard-line Iranian leader called U.N. sanctions "illegal" and said that Iran would ignore the Security Council's demands.
Ahmadinejad instead said Tehran would work with the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency to clear up technical questions about past nuclear work and declared a right to continue uranium enrichment for what he said were peaceful purposes. In an address rife with philosophical points and references to God, Ahmadinejad said, "I officially announce that in our opinion, the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed and has turned into an ordinary agency [IAEA] matter."
The U.S. delegation left before Ahmadinejad began speaking; he, earlier, had sat through President Bush's address in the General Assembly hall. Bush and his chief diplomat, Condoleezza Rice, used some of their time in New York to lobby for another round of tougher U.N. sanctions, but Bush did not focus on the nuclear question in his speech. He did, however, lump Iran in with other "brutal regimes" in need of "liberation."
Behind the scenes here, U.S. officials are trying to galvanize support for new sanctions among a select group of countries guiding the U.N. sanctions process on Iran. The four other permanent members of the Security Council—Russia, China, Britain, and France— along with Germany, Russia, and China are opposed, insisting that action be deferred until the IAEA reports in November as to whether Iran is now cooperating in answering questions about its nuclear work. The latter two countries have played down the possibility that sanctions will work with Iran.
Ahmadinejad used appearances this week at Columbia University in Manhattan and before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (via a video link) to argue that Iran had no intention of building nuclear weapons—and, perhaps, to try to soften his hard-line, uncompromising image in the United States.