Ahmadinejad gives soft tone for tough times
by SANAZ MESHKINPOUR in New York
25 Sep 2009 08:34
[ dispatches ] Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad toned down his customary vitriol in his speech at the United Nations Wednesday night, outlining a vision of cooperation and a world free of nuclear weapons.
"Our nation is prepared to warmly shake all those hands which are honestly extended to us," he said in his address to the UN General Assembly. "We welcome real and humane changes and stand ready to actively engage in fundamental global reforms."
But Ahmadinejad's conciliatory remarks came after his trademark attacks on Israel and the United States. He called last winter's Gaza war a "barbarous attack," prompting a walk-out by representatives of Western countries. He did avoid statements denying the Holocaust.
The Iranian president's address was perhaps the most anticipated speech of this year's General Assembly, if not by delegates, then by thousands of demonstrators protesting outside the U.N.
This was Ahmadinejad's first visit to the United States since Iran's widely contested June 12 election. Ahmadinejad maintains the elections were legitimate, while opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi insist the vote was rigged. The June election was followed by weeks of demonstrations that shook the country and exposed deep rifts within Iran's political elite. Ahmadinejad departed for New York amidst the latest round of protests in Tehran and other Iranian cities.
His government also faces growing concern over Iran's nuclear program. For months, Obama offered Iran talks or tougher sanctions. On Monday it was announced talks would begin October 1, between Iran, the U.S. and world powers.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said Wednesday that Russia was ready to consider sanctions against Iran. The combination of circumstances could explain Ahmadinejad's approach to the U.N. address.
During his speech, the president called for an end to the arms race and the "elimination of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons."
Although at times he trailed off to cover topics from the end of capitalism, to the environment, to the virtues of monotheism, he dedicated large sections toward Israel and the United States. Referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said the U.S. helps Israel in creating "a new form of slavery."
The statement spurred American, British, and French representatives to leave the room. Several leaders had opted to boycott the address entirely, in protest over Iran's brutal crackdown on the country's opposition. But Ahmadinejad later called on the U.N. to organize a referendum "in Palestine in order to prepare grounds for all Palestinian populations, including Muslims, Christians and Jews to live together in peace and harmony."
Ahmadinejad then chastised U.S. military bases in Latin America, drone bomb attacks on Pakistan, and interference in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The president briefly referenced Iran's June election. "Our nation has successfully gone through a glorious and fully democratic election," he said. "They [the voters] entrusted me once more with a large majority."
As he spoke, protests raged outside the U.N. plaza. Authorities estimate that Ahmadinejad's speech drew crowds of several thousand people. Iranians from the Diaspora traveled from as far as Vancouver, Stockholm, Vienna and Berlin to attend Wednesday's demonstrations.
"We want to be a voice for what's going on in Iran," said Tara Alagheband, a student volunteer with Where Is My Vote, a loose international network responsible for organizing rallies across the world in support of the opposition movement in Iran. "We want the people of Iran to know that they're not alone. We're here, we're with them."
Protesters at the demonstration spanned the political spectrum, from fringe groups such as the Mojahedin Khalgh (MKO) and monarchists loyal to the heir of the deposed Shah, to the majority supporters of the "Green Movement" -- named after the signature color of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi. Although the groups disagree on ideology, many said they came to oppose Ahmadinejad in solidarity with the Iranian people, whom they feel were mistreated during Iran's election fall-out.
"Part of democracy is standing with groups that may have differing opinions," said Arash, a doctor from Dallas who visits Iran often, and preferred not to disclose his last name. "I think today is a microcosm of the future political society of Iran."
There is little doubt, however, that the MKO and monarchists appeal to an older generation, with political roots that predate Iran's 1979 Revolution. The level of energy at the demonstration palpably changed when a wave of green-clad protesters arrived. Young men and women screaming "Ya Hossein, Mir-Hossein" echoed their counterparts in Iran and delivered a commanding presence.
The crowd reached a fever pitch before Ahmadinejad's address. But inside the General Assembly chambers, most seats were empty. After Ahmadinejad reaffirmed his position as president, he ended with something of a debut.
"We announce our commitment to participate in the process of building a durable peace and security worldwide," he said.
The meetings slated for October 1 will be the first formal negotiations between the United States and Iran in thirty years. The talks may last several months, and are expected to dictate the future course of U.S.-Iran relations.