Iran, U.S. Talk Past Each Other at U.N.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended his country's nuclear activities as "transparent" and "peaceful" during a Tuesday address to the United Nations General Assembly. Speaking to the same body, President Bush warned that Iran must abandon its uranium enrichment program, or face sanctions.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary, in for Renee Montagne.

Iran's nuclear standoff with the West took center stage at the United Nations yesterday. President Bush took a hard line against Iran's nuclear program.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The United Nations has passed a clear resolution requiring that the regime in Tehran meet its international obligations. Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

NEARY: But Iran's president defended it as a peaceful nuclear program. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, meanwhile, worked behind the scenes to keep an international coalition on Iran together.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the podium at the U.N. General Assembly last night, he challenged U.S. policy - from Washington's support of Israel to the war in Iraq - and he accused the U.S. of abusing the U.N. Security Council. Ahmadinejad spoke through an interpreter.

President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Through translator) The abuse of the Security Council as an instrument of threat and coercion is indeed a source of grave concern.

KELEMEN: Iran missed a U.N. Security Council deadline to suspend controversial nuclear activities, a program Ahmadinejad argued is peaceful and monitored by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.

President AHMADINEJAD: (Through translator) All our nuclear activities are transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eyes of the IAEA inspectors. Why, then, are there objections to our legally-recognized rights? Which governments object to these rights? Governments that themselves benefit from nuclear energy and the fuel cycle.

KELEMEN: Ahmadinejad, who recently said he wants to debate President Bush, didn't get that opportunity. But he did speak on the same day as President Bush, who used his speech to world leaders to address the Iranian people directly. Mr. Bush said he wants a better relationship with Iranians if their government, as he put it, stops funding terrorism and pursuing nuclear weapons.

President BUSH: Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program. We're working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis.

KELEMEN: As the two men presented their starkly different views, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got down to work with other international diplomats to try to salvage a strategy for dealing with Iran. She's argued that the Security Council's credibility is at stake if it doesn't follow through on a sanctions threat.

French President Jacques Chirac has made clear he prefers to give more time for diplomacy. He spoke through an interpreter.

President JACQUES CHIRAC (France): (Through translator) It is always desirable to find a solution to a crisis through dialogue.

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice met her European, Russian and Chinese counterparts over dinner, to talk about diplomatic next steps. A top State Department official came out saying the U.S. is ready to give European diplomats the time they need to get clear answers from Iran. Nicholas Burns said diplomacy is in extra innings.

Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (U.S. State Department): Now, these extra innings aren't going to be endless. And there will come a time shortly when we're going to have to see an unequivocal answer, because there is no unequivocal answer from the Iranian government.

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice has said she'd personally join talks with Iran if it verifiably suspends its uranium enrichment program. What the European and Iranians are negotiating is a face-saving way to do that.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, New York.

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