Bush Challenged to Debate by Iranian Leader Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad challenges President Bush to a debate on "world affairs." Ahmadinejad made his offer at a news conference held days before an Aug. 31 deadline by the U.N. Security Council for Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment program.
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Bush Challenged to Debate by Iranian Leader

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Bush Challenged to Debate by Iranian Leader

Bush Challenged to Debate by Iranian Leader

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

In Tehran today, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked a year in office by holding a rare news conference. With a U.N. Security Council deadline looming on Thursday for Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, the Iranian president insisted it is his nation's right to acquire nuclear technology. He also challenged President Bush to a televised debate on world affairs.

NPR's Mike Shuster is with us to discuss these remarks. And Mike, this sounds like language we've heard before from the Iranian president.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

It is. It's language we've heard from the Iranian president before and from the other leaders in Iran, including the religious leaders. Ahmadinejad essentially said that Iran has put a serious proposal on the table - this was a week ago -and expressed a willingness to enter into serious negotiations - this is with six nations, the United States, Britain, France, Russian, China and Germany -over a package of incentives on the (unintelligible) that was offered to Iran way back in June.

The Iranians took a long time to respond to this. In the meantime, the Security Council in July adopted further pressure by giving this Thursday as a deadline to the Iranians to suspend uranium enrichment. Ahmadinejad didn't directly address that today, but said again that Iran has a right to nuclear technology and it will pursue negotiations further.

BLOCK: Didn't directly address uranium enrichment. What do you know about where the Iranian leadership stands on that issue?

SHUSTER: Well, neither in its offer of serious negotiations last week or in Ahmadinejad's news conference today did they directly address that, but sources close to the Iranian leadership have told me that they will be willing to address it in the context of further negotiations. It's unclear whether we're going to get to those further negotiations with this Security Council deadline looming.

BLOCK: And what's the response from the U.S. and the five other world powers that you mentioned earlier?

SHUSTER: Well, the United States last week and this week essentially signaled that it wants now to go to table a resolution on economic sanctions to punish Iran for not suspending its uranium enrichment and that might get put on the Security Council table as early as next week.

But not all the members of the Security Council agree. Russia has said this is not the time for economic sanctions. And even the Europeans - the German government and the French government have said that Iran needs to suspend its uranium enrichment before there are further talks, but privately a lot of diplomats in Europe think that the Iranian offer was a serious one. And therefore, the nations need to see whether there could be further talks and further negotiation.

BLOCK: And then there's this offer from Ahmadinejad to debate President Bush. I guess we shouldn't hold our breath for that.

SHUSTER: No. I don't think there's any chance that something like that could occur. Ahmadinejad is somewhat theatrical and this is not the first time that he's sort of personalized his relationship with President Bush. You'll remember that earlier this year he wrote a lengthy letter to President Bush about theology and politics in the world and asked for a response. The United States overlooked that and dismissed it. And today U.S. officials were dismissing this offer of televised debate on world affairs.

But it has something to do with the way Ahmadinejad appeals to the Iranian public and to the wider Muslim world in sort of standing up to the United States and trying to project a kind of position of equality with the American president. And this seems to play, at least among his supporters, very well in Iran.

BLOCK: On another Iranian matter, the State Department announced today that it will grant a visa to the former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. What can you tell us about that?

SHUSTER: This is very interesting, Melissa. This has come up recently. Mohammad Khatami, the former president and a reformist in the Iranian context, has been asked to give a speech at the Washington Cathedral in the first week in September and also to attend a conference at the United Nations. There may be other places that he - I'm told that he may meet with Americans.

The U.S. visa does not restrict his movements in the United States, although the State Department has said he won't meet with U.S. officials. No Iranian of this political level or stature since 1979 has come to the United States, so it ought to be pretty interesting.

BLOCK: NPR's Mike Shuster. Thanks very much.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Melissa.

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