Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the United Nations General Assembly Saturday his government is not seeking nuclear weapons, and is prepared to open its uranium enrichment program to additional international scrutiny. His address followed a call by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for Iran to return to nuclear talks with Britain, France and Germany.
The Iranian leader struck a defiant tone in the U.N. speech, saying his country has an inalienable right to pursue a full nuclear cycle, while accusing Iran's critics of practicing what he termed "nuclear apartheid" - allowing some countries to enrich fuel, but not others.
Iranian officials had said in advance of the message that Mr. Ahmadinejad would offer new ideas to ease international concerns about Iran's nuclear intentions.
While repeatedly insisting that his country's nuclear program is entirely peaceful, the Iranian president said that as a confidence-building measure Iran is ready to engage in what he described as a "serious partnership" with foreign companies and governments in its enrichment program.
He provided no details of the idea, but heard through an interpreter, he lashed out at the United States and others who say Iran has a covert nuclear weapons program. "This is nothing but a pure propaganda ploy. The Islamic Republic of Iran is presenting in good faith its proposal and constructive inter-action and a just dialogue. However, if some try to impose their will on the Iranian people through resort to a language of force and threat with Iran, we will reconsider our entire approach to the nuclear issue," he said.
Mr. Ahmadinejad proposed that the U.N. General Assembly set up an ad hoc committee to pursue global nuclear disarmament and abolish double-standards with regard to possession of nuclear technology.
In the half-hour speech and a subsequent news conference, he suggested that other countries, South Africa in particular, should join the nuclear talks Iran has had over the last two years with Britain, France and Germany.
Iran broke off those talks in August and resumed uranium conversion work, in violation of the November 2004 agreement it had reached with the EU-Three , to suspend sensitive nuclear activity.
Addressing the General Assembly earlier in the day, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on Tehran to return to the talks with the Europeans or face punitive action by the U.N. Security Council. "When diplomacy has been exhausted, the Security Council must become involved. Questions about Iran's nuclear activities remain unanswered despite repeated efforts by the IAEA And after agreeing to negotiate with Europe, Iran has unilaterally walked away from the talks and restarted its nuclear programs. Iran should return to the negotiations with the EU-Three, and abandon forever its plans for a nuclear weapons capability," she said.
The Europeans have offered Iran economic and political incentives in return for an end to uranium enrichment and related projects.
The governing board of the International Atomic Energy Agency opens a critical meeting on the Iranian nuclear program in Vienna Monday.
The United States has been sounding out member countries of the 35-nation board about a referral of the matter to the Security Council.
U.S. officials say most members are prepared to do so, though there are some key holdouts, including Russia, which says diplomatic options have not been exhausted.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said there is still time for diplomacy but it is up to Iran to seize the opportunity.
Mr. Ahmadinejad, an Islamic hardliner who took office in August, warned in a U.S. television interview Saturday that Iran might engineer a run-up in world oil prices if western powers dragged it before the Security Council.