United Nations — For all its flaws, the United Nations sometimes reflects the world as it’s supposed to. This week it held up a pretty accurate mirror of a globe that’s troubled by would-be Quran burners, violent radical Muslims and disputes over where to build houses of worship.
The role of provocateur at this year’s annual U.N. General Assembly fell, unsurprisingly, to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who suggested Thursday that the U.S. government was behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which killed about 3,000 people.
The news media dutifully reported Ahmadinejad’s conspiracy theory as news, and President Barack Obama denounced his remarks as “hateful” and “offensive” in an interview Friday with BBC’s Persian news service, which has a significant audience in Iran.
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Obama’s denunciation was seconded by Britain’s deputy prime minister, usually mild-mannered U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and others, perhaps suggesting that Ahmadinejad’s annual antics here are wearing thin.
The Iranian leader’s comments, perhaps by design, diverted attention from a host of real issues on world leaders’ plates, ranging from a possible new civil war in Sudan, fresh tensions in East Asia and Iran’s own suspected nuclear weapons program.
Behind the furor, there were tentative signs of progress on the standoff over Iran’s enrichment of uranium, which can be used to fuel nuclear arms.
At a news conference Friday, the Iranian leader said that Iran’s negotiators might be willing to meet international counterparts next month to revive stalled talks. He also promised, as he has in the past, that Iran would halt enrichment if given uranium to fuel a civilian research reactor in Tehran.
U.S. officials reacted cautiously.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has offered the Iranians a meeting since the U.N. Security Council approved new economic sanctions in June, “but has yet to receive an official response,” said Michael Hammer, a National Security Council spokesman.
“But we aren’t interested in diplomacy for diplomacy’s sake,” Hammer said.
Senior U.S. and European officials have argued in recent weeks that the sanctions have hit Iran’s already mismanaged economy hard, prompting an internal debate over the course of the country’s foreign policy.
Past diplomacy with Iran has yielded little, however, such as an abortive deal over the Tehran research reactor that was struck in talks in Geneva a year ago.
In the BBC Persian interview, Obama acknowledged that “there are no guarantees” sanctions will work. “But we do think that the sanctions raise the costs for the government. … And we think that over time, hopefully, there’s enough reflection within the Iranian government that they say to themselves, you know, this is not the best course.”
Also on Obama’s agenda Friday was Sudan. Africa’s largest country faces the threat of renewed civil war if, as expected, its semiautonomous south votes to secede in a referendum planned for January.
Obama, whom nongovernmental groups have accused of giving the issue insufficient attention, attended a high-level meeting on Sudan, the type of event that presidents usually delegate to their secretaries of state.
“What happens in Sudan in the days ahead may decide whether a people who have endured too much war move forward towards peace or slip backwards into bloodshed,” Obama told the leaders of 41 countries and international organizations.
Vice President Ali Osman Taha of the central government in Khartoum and South Sudan leader Salva Kiir agreed in a communique to hold the referendum Jan. 9 as scheduled and to respect the outcome.
It was Ahmadinejad’s remarks that echoed throughout the day, however.
“Once again, an issue of grave global concern has been overshadowed by the bizarre, offensive and attention-grabbing pronouncements by President Ahmadinejad from this podium yesterday,” British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the U.N. General Assembly.
“His remarks were intended to distract attention from Iran’s (nuclear) obligations and to generate media headlines,” Clegg said. “They deserve to do neither.”
It was left to Ban, the usually genteel U.N. chief, to plead, with some exasperation, for everyone to watch his or her tongues.
“Let us acknowledge that we live in a world where the smallest group can inflict large damage,” Ban said. “That damage can be multiplied by loose language in politics and beyond.”