TEHRAN, Iran — U.S. officials reacted warily to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s promise Monday of a “positive” response to Western outreach efforts, insisting they needed to see “deeds, not words,” when Tehran gives its answer to proposed incentives to freeze its nuclear enrichment program.
In an interview Monday with Brian Williams, anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” Ahmadinejad disavowed any efforts to build nuclear weapons, calling them crude and outdated. He said Iran would welcome moves by the United States and five other world powers to reach an agreement if the Western initiative was sincerely a “new approach” rooted in “mutual respect, cooperation and justice,” rather than “a continuation of the confrontation with the Iranian people but in a new guise.”
“Nuclear bombs belong to the 20th century,” Ahmadinejad said in the interview, which was conducted at the presidential palace compound in Tehran. “We are living in a new century.”
At the same time, he said Iran would continue testing longer-range missiles. Tests of a new version of the Shahab missile earlier this month raised concerns among Western leaders after Iranian officials claimed the new missiles had a range of 1,250 miles, which would put much of the Middle East, including Israel, within striking distance.
“The Iranian nation needs to defend its rights, its interests,” Ahmadinejad said, adding: “But if the approach changes, we will be facing a new situation, and the response by the Iranian people will be a positive one.”
Full coverage of the interview will air on “NBC Nightly News” later Monday.
U.S. seeks 'definitive statement'
Senior officials of the Bush administration told NBC News that Ahmadinejad’s comments appeared to reflect a legitimately new approach from Iran, which is why they reversed seven years of administration policy and agreed to a meeting between Assistant Secretary of State William Burns and his Iranian counterpart last week.
But they stressed that they wanted to see “deeds, not words,” when Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, gives Tehran’s formal response to a Western offer to halt new steps toward more U.N. sanctions if it freezes its expansion of its nuclear program. The deadline for Iran’s response to Javier Solana, the West’s designated negotiator, is Saturday.
Video: A public wary of attack “Ultimately, we’ve been hearing some different things from out of Iran,” a senior U.S. official told NBC News on condition of anonymity. “What we’re looking for is, at the end of the two weeks, a definitive statement ... on where the Iranians stand. I don’t believe we’ve received that definitive statement yet.”
Ahmadinejad characterized doubts about Iran’s intentions as normal give and take in diplomatic negotiations.
“They submitted a package, and we responded by submitting our own package. They, again, submitted a work plan, and we submitted our own work plan,” he told Williams.
“It’s very natural in the first steps we are going to negotiate the common ground as it exists inside the two packages,” he said. “If the two parties succeed in agreeing over the common ground, that will help us to work on our differences as well to reach an agreement.”
But he repeated that “the main question here is whether this approach is the continuation of the old approach or is it a totally new approach?”
Iran balks at enrichment freeze
Iran has so far ruled out a freeze to start preliminary talks or suspension of enrichment to start formal negotiations on the incentives package proposed by the six powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.
The United States has warned Iran that it will face more sanctions if it fails to meet the deadline. Washington has not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails.
Asked if Iran would agree to suspend uranium enrichment in order to gain international acceptance, Ahmadinejad said Iran already enjoys “very good economic and cultural relations with countries around the world.”
“For the continuation of our lives and for progress, we do not need the services, if I can use the word, of a few countries,” he said.
Ahmadinejad announced during the weekend that Iran had more than 5,000 active centrifuges for enriching uranium, which suggested a rapid expansion of nuclear work that the West suspects is aimed at making bombs.
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with Andrea Mitchell and Libby Leist of NBC News.