Iran’s President Hints at Hope for Defusing Crisis

Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: June 17, 2006
SHANGHAI, June 16 ó Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Friday that his country was seriously considering an international proposal to resolve the dispute over its uranium enrichment program.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s vague but conciliatory remarks, made here at the end of an Asian summit meeting, came with veiled taunts of the United States and statements of solidarity with China and Russia, the leading powers in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the regional group that convened the gathering.
“My colleagues are carefully considering the package of proposals of the six countries, and in due time they will give them a response,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said. At another point in a news conference, he said, “Generally we regard the offering of this package as a step forward,” adding that his country “supports constructive talks on the basis of equality.”
The proposal was put forth this month by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, and offers Iran incentives to freeze its nuclear activities. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit here has put the spotlight on the diplomatic importance of China and Russia, Security Council members that have resisted sanctions as a means of resolving the crisis.
Although the details of their talks were not disclosed, the leaders of China and Russia are thought to have urged Iran to embrace the six-party proposal. Both China, as the host, and Russia, a co-founder of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, have appeared eager for a successful meeting here that would increase the prestige of the five-year-old body.
This may help explain the restrained, even studied language of Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose country is a candidate for membership but whose oratory can be inflammatory.
Although his repeated references to the United States were unmistakable, he never named his designated nemesis. “Some countries create problems for other countries and make the impression that these are problems for the entire international community,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said. “Actually they are making problems for themselves.”
In Washington, the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, sought to play down Mr. Ahmadinejad’s statement. “I’m not going to try to comment on the various rhetoric coming out of Tehran or elsewhere concerning Iran’s thoughts on the proposal in public,” he said. “As I said before, we’re going to wait for the formal response.”
In his remarks Friday, Mr. Ahmadinejad repeated his denials that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, referring regularly to the “Islamic Republic of Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has often questioned the reality of the Holocaust, said again that the history should be “investigated by impartial and independent experts,” and added that the Palestinians should not be made victims because of events in European history. He concluded his remarks on this subject, however, by saying, “There are no differences between Jews, Christians and Muslims.”
Asked if he were concerned about the possibility of an Israeli attack on his country’s uranium enrichment plants, similar to Israel’s aerial attack on the Osirak nuclear plant near Baghdad in 1981, Mr. Ahmadinejad brushed the question off with a quick “No.” Moments later, he added that Iran had the means to defend itself, but offered no details.
Iran’s status as an observer and candidate for membership poses delicate questions for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has six members: China, Russia and four former Soviet republics, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. China is in the midst of a carefully measured bid to increase its diplomatic clout without alarming the United States or others, from Europe to India.
At times, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s language flirted with formulations that Beijing has studiously avoided, which would cast the group as a rival or counterweight to the West and to alliances like NATO.
Mr. Ahmadinejad said pointedly that if all the observer states became members, the organization would represent more than half of the world’s population, and he urged the group to “ward off the threats of domineering powers to use their force against and interfere in the affairs of other states.”
He added, “I believe we should remove the word sanctions from the political literature of the world.”
China, too, has consistently opposed sanctions as a tool of international relations, and helped engineer a joint declaration at the end of the talks here. The declaration said, “Differences in cultural traditions, political and social systems, values and models of development formed in the course of history should not be taken as pretexts to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.”
But if the membership swells without addressing the problem of nuclear proliferation, it could face problems on two fronts.
On the one hand, the credibility of an approach that renounces sanctions and the use of force will be severely weakened, along with China’s diplomatic prestige. On the other, if the Shanghai Cooperation Organization emerges as a group whose highest principle is the right of states to do what they wish without outside interference, China and Russia could both eventually face the nightmare of a nuclear-armed Central Asia.
“One example of our being a responsible stakeholder is speaking to Iran and asking Iran to respect I.A.E.A. commitments, to make sure that it meets its obligations,” said Shen Dingli, a specialist in international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. He referred to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Beyond that, while Mr. Ahmadinejad repeatedly stressed Iran’s diplomatic closeness with China and Russia, calling China’s leader, Hu Jintao, “my very good friend,” he also repeatedly invoked the importance of religion, or what he called “spirituality.” China and Russia have had problems with Muslim minorities and would be loath to see the spread of militant Islam in the region.
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