U.N. Deadline Looms on Iran's Nuclear Program

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad challenged President Bush to a live television debate Tuesday as the U.N. deadline to halt Iran's nuclear program approaches. Iran insists it is pursuing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, but the United States and other nations assert they are looking to build nuclear weapons.


In Tehran today, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made another in a series of verbal challenges to President Bush. This time, he suggested holding a live TV debate to, quote, talk about world affairs and the ways to solve those issues. One of the issues, of course, Iran's nuclear program, which Mr. Ahmadinejad insists is not for building nuclear bombs. The U.N. Security Council deadline for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment is Thursday.

NPR's Mike Shuster joins us. Mike, is there really diplomatic significance to these comments today from the Iranian president or what is this?

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Well, probably not on the personal side. The challenge to President Bush is probably not serious. It's not the first time that President Ahmadinejad of Iran has sort of personalized his relationship with President Bush. Remember earlier this year he sent a very long letter to President Bush, which the United States didn't respond to.

But this plays well in Iran among many people who feel that the United States and other powers are putting undue pressure on Iran - vis-à-vis its nuclear activities, its planned nuclear activities - and it seems that the Iranian president calculates that if he does personalize it and stand up, in a sense, to the United States that this will win him support both domestically in Iran and probably in the wider Islamic world.

CHADWICK: I'm struck by just the personal quality of this, as though one leader says to another we're going to have this out between the two of us, and, you know, we're representing our society. There's something almost medieval in it.

SHUSTER: Well, you could see it that way. At the same time, I think that President Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders are truly - irritated is a mild word. They feel that actions of the United States in the Middle East -particularly with a 135,000 American troops in Iraq and more in Afghanistan, which both border Iran - that it represents potential threat to their national security. And I think that President Ahmadinejad wants to personalize his pressure on President Bush.

CHADWICK: He's winning hearts and minds in the Middle East, or trying to?

SHUSTER: There are different opinions about this. Certainly, he is trying to. That probably explains to some degree the hostile commons that he has continuously made since he took office a year ago, vis-à-vis Israel. So, yes, he is trying to win hearts and minds in the wider Middle East.

CHADWICK: Do you see him really sketching out an alternative to the Bush doctrine?

SHUSTER: I'm not sure that he's sketching out an alternative to the Bush doctrine. Perhaps in the sense, though, that Iran and Iranian leaders believed that they are the growing regional power in the Middle East. They are the largest country. They are flushed with petro dollars, and they believed they should take their rightful place as the regional power. And that, certainly at this stage of the game, is a challenge to the United State vision of how to transform the Middle East. Whether he sees it as a real alternative to the Bush doctrine is hard to say, but they have certainly an alternative foreign policy that they're pursuing in the Middle East.

CHADWICK: And if he can challenge the president of the United States to a world debate, certainly that would elevate his own standing, right?

SHUSTER: Well, I supposed he thinks that the challenge - I mean, if they actually held a debate, which is impossible. But I imagine it's possible that he thinks that it would improve his standing.

CHADWICK: NPR's Mike Shuster. Thank you, Mike.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Alex.

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