UNITED NATIONS—Grinning and giving brisk little salutes, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied Thursday that Iran wants a nuclear bomb and said it might discuss suspending uranium enrichment if the conditions are fair.
During an hour-long press conference here, Ahmadinejad declined to repeat his threat that Israel should be "wiped off the map." But he railed against Zionists and suggested that several thousand mainly Jewish protesters who demonstrated against his presence in New York City might have been paid to attend. He also called for a referendum on the future of the land that constitutes Israel and the Palestinian areas.
Smiling from the start, Ahmadinejad quoted the Quran and apologized to New York's residents for the inconvenience his and other leaders' motorcades caused during the annual U.N. General Assembly.
At one point, he called America "a great nation."
With his face on the cover of Time magazine and his every word and movement followed by hordes of journalists, this has clearly been Ahmadinejad's week.
His combination of breezy confidence and sometimes slippery answers underscored the challenge President Bush faces in trying to halt Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program.
Ahmadinejad was just one of the world leaders who denounced Bush's foreign policies from the rostrum in the General Assembly hall this week.
But Iran poses a special challenge. It has vast oil and gas deposits, possesses an advanced nuclear research program, supports terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and can threaten U.S. troops across its borders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The United States, European nations, Russia and China this week set another deadline—the first week of October—for Iran to respond on whether it will stop enriching uranium, which, if made pure enough, could fuel an atomic bomb.
A previous deadline, Aug. 31, came and went. But with Iran dangling the possibility of talks, Bush had little choice but to submit to other nations' desire to give diplomacy every last chance, U.S. officials said privately.
"We're in extra innings," Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, the State Department's point man on Iran, said this week.
But Ahmadinejad didn't seem to be in any hurry to deliver the final pitch.
Asked repeatedly whether Iran would suspend uranium enrichment, he complained: "I don't see why so many people are so sensitive about this `enrichment' word.
"We have said under fair conditions and just conditions, we will negotiate about it," he said.
At another point, he said flatly: "The bottom line is, we do not need a bomb, unlike what others think."
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there appeared to be growing divisions within the Iranian government about whether to accept a European-U.S. offer. In turn for the enrichment freeze, Iran would get talks on a package of economic and security incentives. The United States has promised to join the talks for the first time.
But if Ahmadinejad's performance here was any indication, even if Tehran agrees to join negotiations, the talks could be frustrating, torturous and maybe unfruitful.
The Iranian leader spent 15 minutes answering the first question at the press conference.
Asked what guarantees he could provide that Iran didn't seek Israel's destruction or a nuclear bomb, the Iranian leader boomeranged the question back at the United States. He embarked on a lengthy review of how Washington has sought to strangle Iran's Islamic revolution since its 1979 birth.
"Today, the pretext happens to be the nuclear issue," he said.
As for proof that Iran isn't interested in nuclear weapons, he said: "I am at a loss to understand what else we need to do to provide guarantees."
Ahmadinejad, 49, was little known outside of Iran when he was elected president last year. He quickly shocked much of the world by questioning whether the Holocaust took place and calling for Israel's destruction.
But while some early commentators portrayed him as an amateur who might not stay in power long, he's proved so far to be a shrewd politician.
Several thousand supporters of Israel rallied Wednesday to protest his presence and call for the release of two Israeli reserve soldiers kidnapped in mid-July by Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
Ahmadinejad pondered out loud whether "some of these people were paid."
He insisted he wasn't "anti-Jew." As for the question of a future country for the Palestinians, he said, "It's wrong to think this is a problem with me, with Ahmadinejad as a humble person. No, it is a global problem."
He was asked three times whether Iran would halt arms shipments to Hezbollah, which the U.N. Security Council called for to cement the cease-fire in Lebanon. He never gave a clear answer.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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