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Debate Likely on Syria and Iran’s Nuclear Program at 2012 U.N. General Assembly

September 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
As leaders from more than 120 countries arrive in New York for the 2012 U.N. General Assembly, it is likely that discussion will center on addressing the Syrian civil war and the progression of Iran's nuclear program. Gwen Ifill talks to NewsHour senior correspondent Margaret Warner for more on what to expect.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Syria will again be one of the dominating issues at the United Nations this week, as leaders and high-ranking officials from more than 120 countries descend on New York for the General Assembly debate.

One of them, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, met with reporters this morning, including our Margaret Warner. He was asked if he would regard an attack by Israel on Iran’s military or nuclear facilities as an attack by the United States.

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, Iran (through translator): Fundamentally, we do not take seriously the threats of the Zionists vis-a-vis an attack on Iran by them, even though we are Iran.

Iran at the end of the day is a great country. And let me assure you we do have all defensive means at our disposal.

MARGARET WARNER: Prime Minister Netanyahu has said Israel can simply not stand to have Iran get to the point in which it has enough medium-enriched uranium to be able to very quickly convert that to weapons-grade and really essentially have a weapon within a matter of months. And he’s made it clear that Israel is prepared to take military action to try to prevent that.

Do you think he’s bluffing?

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (through translator): You see, whether he’s bluffing or he really intends that does not even come into the equation for us. What are they? What are these Zionists? Put the world map in front of you. Put an atlas in front of you.

Iran has been Iran for the last 7,000-10,000 years. They have been occupying those territories for the last 60 to 70 years with the support and force of the Westerners. They have no roots there in history.

GWEN IFILL: For more on what else the Iranian leader said at that news-making breakfast today and what is ahead this week at the U.N., I’m joined by Margaret Warner, who is at the U.N. this afternoon.

Margaret, that breakfast looks very interesting. How different was Ahmadinejad than what you remember the last time you saw him in action?

MARGARET WARNER: Gwen, he was very different.

The last time I saw him up close like that was actually 2006 in Tehran. And he was facing similar pressure, which was a U.N. deadline to freeze uranium enrichment or face sanctions. He stood in front of more than 100 reporters for an hour-and-a-half or two. He was combative. He was feisty.

He seemed to enjoy jousting with all of us and with the Iranian reporters. He smiled a lot and was just cocky.

Today, he went an hour-and-a-half, nearly, but he sat hunched in front of a microphone. He seemed very subdued and barely made eye contact, rarely smiled.

And even though his words, I would say, were defiant — you heard them on the tape we just ran — he really — they had a well-worn quality.

And it’s important to remember that he is a lame-duck president. And his influence appears to have been greatly diminished since seven years ago.

GWEN IFILL: One of the big questions which comes up in a recurring fashion here in Washington and around the world is about Iran’s nuclear program.

Lately, Benjamin Netanyahu has been laying down — drawing another line in the sand on this issue. Did Ahmadinejad appear to be responding to that in any way?

MARGARET WARNER: Only because he was asked and pressed by all of us. But as you — again, as you saw on the tape, he was very dismissive not only of that, but also of other pressures on him.

For instance, for the — as for the ever-tightening economic sanctions, he said, oh, Iranians are getting used to living without all of that revenue from oil.

But on the Netanyahu threat, he basically said, as you heard, that he didn’t take it seriously. He went on to say that he — everyone should remember that Iran is a vast country. He must have used the word vast four or five times.

It was as if to emphasize that the Israelis — and he didn’t mention Americans — would have a hard time taking out all the nuclear facilities, even if a strike were to occur.

Finally, interestingly, he didn’t answer a question as to whether he would regard an Israeli strike as also being a U.S. strike, whether he would essentially retaliate. Other members of his regime have said that frequently, but he didn’t repeat that.

GWEN IFILL: Which, of course, is the big question.

The U.N. General Assembly always has a public agenda and then it always has what everybody is really talking about. What are people really talking about so far?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, what they’re really talking about, I have to say at first, is Syria, the conflict in Syria, the unhappiness here with the fact that the U.N. has not done anything about the conflict in Syria.

But the Iranian conflict or stand-off is also a big topic of discussion, not only among the three, Israel, Iran and the U.S., with their allies, but also all the nervous — other countries, especially nervous neighbors.

And then, of course, Iran’s role in Syria is part of the whole backdrop. I mean, Iran stands accused, and there’s evidence that they have been shipping certainly materiel and supplies, if not weapons, to the Iranians.

Members of the regime have boasted having Iranians there on the ground advising Syrian army forces. So Iran and what Iran is up to is very much on people’s minds here.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama arrived at the U.N. General Assembly today. What does — he didn’t have anything public on his schedule. But what has he been up to?

MARGARET WARNER: Not much here at the U.N., Gwen, despite all of the international crises roiling, not only Iran and Syria, but the anti-American outbursts, violence in the Middle East.

He is not meeting at all one-on-one with any leaders, we’re told. He declined, as we know, to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who doesn’t get here until Thursday.

He also declined a request to meet with the Egyptian — new Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, and with President Zardari of Pakistan and the president of Libya, where again these anti-American outbursts have taken place. Those have been left to Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, to handle. And she had a couple of those today.

The reason really is the election campaign. And White House advisers will tell you that pretty frankly in private. It’s not just the time required for the meetings, but it’s all the time required for the prep for the meetings.

In other words, it’s not just the two days. You really have to have something to say when you go on those meetings. You have to know where you are and what you get out of them.

Then there was also just the unpredictability. You have got not only the fact that we’re 50 — less than 50 days away from the election, but the debate next week.

The president wants to stay focused on that. And since in these one-on-ones the president and the leader always come out and say something to the press, they just couldn’t be sure that, whether it was one of these Arab presidents, whether it was Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has very bad personal chemistry with President Obama, that they might not say something that then the White House would have to spend a couple days reacting to — so just too risky.

GWEN IFILL: Yes, we’re never far away from the politics of it all.

MARGARET WARNER: No.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner, thanks a lot.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret writes more about the breakfast with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad online, where we have additional video clips of the Iranian leader. For that and more on what is happening at the U.N. General Assembly this week, go to our World page.