Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ahmadinejad leaves for UN amid high tensions

"the American people are eager to hear different opinions about the world, and he is looking forward to having the chance to voice them during his trip to the United States,

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Sunday that the American people are eager to hear different opinions about the world, and he is looking forward to having the chance to voice them during his trip to the United States, state media reported.

The hardline leader left Sunday for New York to address the UN General Assembly and speak to students and teachers during a forum at Columbia University. The visit has caused a stir in New York. Tensions are high between Washington and Tehran over US accusations that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons and helping Shiite militias in Iraq that target US troops - claims Iran denies.

Ahmadinejad said the American people have been denied "correct information," and his visit will give them a chance to hear a different voice, the official IRNA news agency reported.

"The United States is a big and important country with a population of 300 million. Due to certain issues, the American people in the past years have been denied correct and clear information about global developments and are eager to hear different opinions," Ahmadinejad was quoted by IRNA as saying.

State-run television also quoted Ahmadinejad before boarding his presidential plane Sunday as saying that the General Assembly was an "important podium" to express Iran's views on regional and global issues. He is scheduled to address the Assembly on Tuesday - his third time attending the New York meeting in three years.

He is also set to speak at a Columbia University question-and-answer forum on Monday in New York. His request to lay a wreath at ground zero, site of the World Trade Center 2001 terror attacks, was denied by city officials and condemned by politicians. After the Sept. 11 attacks, hundreds of young Iranians held a series of candlelight vigils in Tehran.

Police rejected Ahmadinejad's request, citing construction and security concerns. In an interview to air Sunday on "60 Minutes" Ahmadinejad indicated he would not press the issue but expressed disbelief that the visit would offend Americans.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini also appeared dismayed that the request was rejected. "What kind of damage will the US face?" by Ahmadinejad visiting the site, Hosseini told reporters at his weekly press conference Sunday.

Columbia invitation stirs debate
Columbia University President Lee Bollinger has resisted requests to cancel the event but promised to introduce the talk himself with a series of tough questions on topics including Ahmadinejad's views on the Holocaust, his call for the destruction of the state of Israel and his government's alleged support of terrorism.

Columbia canceled a planned visit by the Iranian president last year, citing security and logistical reasons. Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust "a myth" and called for Israel to be "wiped off the map." Hosseini said there "are efforts to cancel" the Columbia speech, but the Iranian government is continuing to pursue the program.

He did not elaborate other than saying a lot of pressure was being placed on the program's sponsors. Ahmadinejad's visit to New York is also being debated back home. Some in Iran think his trip is a publicity stint that hurts Iran's image in the world.

Political analyst Iraj Jamshidi said Ahmadinejad looks at the General Assembly as a publicity forum simply to surprise world leaders with his unpredictable harsh rhetoric.

"The world has not welcomed Ahmadinejad's hardline approach. His previous address to the Assembly didn't resolve any of Iran's foreign policy issues. And no one expects anything better this time," he said. Independent Iranian analysts also criticized Ahmadinejad for making the trip saying his anti-Western rhetoric makes life for Iran more difficult.

"Many experts believe Ahmadinejad's previous two visits brought no achievement ... Rather, it heightened tensions," the reformist daily Etemad-e-Melli, or National Confidence, said in an editorial Sunday. But conservative lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi said it was a good chance for Iran to air its position. "This trip gives the president a good chance to meet world leaders and inform them of Iran's rightful position," IRNA quoted Boroujerdi as saying. Tensions between the US and Iran were heightened in recent days after US forces detained an Iranian official in northern Iraq.

Washington has said it is addressing the Iran situation diplomatically, rather than militarily, but US officials also say that all options are open. The commander of the US military forces in the Middle East said he does not believe tension will lead to war.

"This constant drum beat of conflict is what strikes me, which is not helpful and not useful," Adm. William Fallon, head of US Central Command, said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television, which made a partial transcript available Sunday.

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