Amid Protests, Iran's President To Address U.N.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gets his moment in the spotlight Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly. But this trip is different than past visits. He's a lame duck president and comes to New York at a time when Israel is frequently raising the possibility of a military strike on Iran.

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The president of Iran gets his moment in the spotlight at the United Nations General Assembly today. There will be protests outside U.N. headquarters in New York. All week, demonstrators have picketed the hotel where he's staying. The trip by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does have a different backdrop compared to years past. Ahmadinejad is now a lame duck president, and he's in the United States at a moment when Israel is raising the possibility of a military strike on his country.

Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When President Obama opened the U.N. General Assembly, he was blunt on the issue of Iran. He said, time and again, Iran has failed to prove to the world that its nuclear program is peaceful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, let me be clear: America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy. And we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited.

KELEMEN: He didn't go as far as spelling out red lines for Iran, as Israel wants him to do. But President Obama made clear that containing a nuclear-armed Iran is not an option.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: That's why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that's why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

KELEMEN: U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he's concerned about, as he put it, the shrill talk of war. But The Iranian president has been brushing off those threats, as he did when he met with reporters earlier this week. NPR was there, and PBS "NewsHour" provided this recording of Ahmadinejad, speaking through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NEWSHOUR")

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: (Through translator) Fundamentally, we do not take seriously the threats of the Zionists, vis-a-vis, an attack on Iran by them. We do believe that the Zionists see themselves at a dead-end, and they want to be adventurous in order to find a salvation, a way out of this dead-end.

KELEMEN: His anti-Israel rhetoric was quickly dismissed by the White House. Today's speech will come at a particularly sensitive time, as Jews celebrate their holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Outside, on his way to one of his meetings with Ahmadinejad, MIT Professor Jim Walsh predicted the Iranian leader's U.N. speech would be acerbic and biting, as they always are. But he says he has seen some differences in his private contacts with the Iranian leader this time. Walsh been coming to this rodeo, as he puts it, for six years now.

JIM WALSH: You'll see many Ahmadinejad's in a 48-hour period. Because this is a guy, it's worth remembering, who is in trouble domestically back home. He does not have the support of the supreme leader, as he has in the past. He is a lame duck now, right? He - there'll be a new president elected June, June of 2013. So it's an opportunity for him to consolidate himself or try to consolidate himself politically for this last several months.

KELEMEN: Walsh says this is a dangerous time in the Middle East, and he thinks Iranians realize that, despite Ahmadinejad's public bluster.

WALSH: It seems unlikely that Israel will attack, but I think that chance is as high or higher than it's been before. So I think people sense the danger. And then mixed in all this, you've got Syria, which is their main ally, and they're in trouble, and you've got the Arab Spring in turmoil all around the region. So I think there's a sensitivity this year, that maybe there wasn't two or five years ago, that things are different and more dangerous.

KELEMEN: The MIT professor is not expecting any new diplomatic push by the U.S. and its partners or Iran, however. He says for now, everyone is treading water until after the U.S. elections.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, New York.

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