U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the General Assembly's annual debate Thursday, saying the world looks to the United Nations for "moral and political leadership" in these uncertain times. Several world leaders spoke at the opening session, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who pressed his Middle East agenda, and Iran's president who speculated that American officials were behind the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
In his address, President Obama spoke at length about the importance of the U.S.-brokered talks between Israel and the Palestinians, saying it has been a road with "few peaks and many valleys." But he said there is no other option but two states living side-by-side in peace and security.
"We all have a choice to make. Each of us must choose the path of peace. Of course, that responsibility begins with the parties themselves, who must answer the call of history," he said.
He said he believes both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "have the courage" to follow their words with actions.
On the issue of Iran's suspect nuclear program, Mr. Obama said Tehran had failed to respond to what he called the "extended hand" he offered a year ago for a nuclear dialogue. He said recent tough U.N. Security Council sanctions make clear that implementing international law with regard to Iran is not an empty promise.
"Now let me be clear once more. The United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it. But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment, and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program," Mr. Obama said.
In their statements, Brazil and Turkey, both non-permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, expressed their hope that the fuel swap deal they negotiated in May with Iran, but that has stalled since the imposition of new sanctions in June, would be used as an opportunity to move toward resolving the Iranian nuclear question.
Outside the United Nations, demonstrators protested the presence of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the General Assembly.
Inside, Mr. Ahmadinejad said the agreement negotiated by Turkey and Brazil still stands. "Although the Declaration received inappropriate reaction by some and was followed by an unlawful resolution, it is still valid," he said.
He said Iran remains ready for a "serious and free debate" with U.S. officials to express their views on the nuclear issue.
But it was Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments about the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States that saw American and some other western officials leave the assembly hall. He speculated that some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attacks to reverse a U.S. economic decline and to save Israel. He claimed the "majority" of American people believed this conspiracy theory.
In a statement, a U.S. spokesman said Mr. Ahmadinejad "has yet again chosen to spout vile conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic slurs that are as abhorrent and delusional as they are predictable."
Moving away from the Middle East to Africa, Malawian President Bingu Wa Mutharika who currently chairs the African Union said members are "gravely concerned" about the violence and the lack of a stable or functioning government in Somalia. "This continuing volatile situation is being compounded by rising and organized piracy in the Indian Ocean. This is negatively affecting not only Somalia and her immediate neighbors, but the entire African continent and the rest of the world," he said.
Moving to Asia, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao focused on his country's development goals, saying Beijing aims to achieve modernization by the middle of this century. "China will continue to focus on developing the economy. Development is our top priority, as it constitutes the basis for addressing all issues," he said.
Beijing is widely criticized for its human rights record, but in his remarks Premier Wen said China respects and protects human rights and upholds social equity and justice.
The annual debate continues Friday, when the leaders of Argentina, Nigeria, Japan and Kyrgyzstan will be among those addressing the gathering.