Image: Diplomats walk out of Iranian leader's speech
Don Emmert  /  AFP - Getty Images
Diplomats walk out of the U.N. General Assembly in New York during the speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/23/2010 4:52:31 PM ET 2010-09-23T20:52:31

The U.S. and several European delegations walked out of the U.N. speech of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday after he said most people believe the U.S. government was behind the Sept. 11 terror attacks in order to assure Israel's survival.

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In his speech to the annual General Assembly, Ahmadinejad said it was mostly U.S. government officials who believed a terrorist group was behind the suicide hijacking attacks that brought down New York's World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon.

Another theory, he said, was "that some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy, and its grips on the Middle East, in order to save the Zionist regime" — his way of characterizing Israel.

"The majority of the American people as well as most nations and politicians around the world agree with this view," Ahmadinejad told the 192-nation assembly.

The U.S. and some European delegations left shortly after Ahmadinejad made the remarks.

The U.S. delegation issued this statement in response: "Rather than representing the aspirations and goodwill of the Iranian people, Mr. Ahmadinejad has yet again chosen to spout vile conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic slurs that are as abhorrent and delusional as they are predictable."

The Iranian leader also spoke of threats to burn the Quran by U.S. religious groups, calling that an act of "evil." He held up a copy of the Muslim holy book, saying "the truth cannot be burned."

Earlier, President Barack Obama spoke to the session , saying "the United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it."

"But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment, and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program," Obama said.

Memorable moments

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, for his part, warned kings, prime ministers and presidents of growing political polarization and social inequalities and implored U.N. members to show greater tolerance and mutual respect to bring the world together.

In his keynote speech, the U.N. chief told leaders from the 192-member nations that "today, we are being tested."

Ban said people everywhere are living in fear of losing their jobs, too many are caught in conflict, "and we see a new politics at work — a politics of polarization."

"We hear the language of hate, false divisions between 'them' and 'us,' those who insist on 'their way' or 'no way,'" he said.

In times of such polarization and uncertainty, Ban said, "let us remember, the world still looks to the United Nations for moral and political leadership."

The meeting follows a three-day summit to promote the achievement of U.N. anti-poverty goals by 2015 that wrapped up late Wednesday night. Many leaders who attended that summit remained in New York for the ministerial session, and will shift gears to other world issues from the continuing impact of the global financial crisis to terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Ban urged Iran "to engage constructively with the international community and comply fully with Security Council resolutions" calling for Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment and return to talks.

The secretary-general also touched on many other global issues — urging North Korea to return to six-party talks on its nuclear program, calling on Israel and the Palestinians not to take any action that would hold back progress on peace talks, urging progress on nuclear disarmament where "we see new momentum," and declaring again the climate change remains the world's "defining challenge."

Just ahead of Obama's speech, Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorin sharply criticized the United States, saying that the 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrated that the "blind faith in intelligence reports tailored to justify political goals must be rejected."

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"We must ban once and for all the use of force inconsistent with international law," Amorin told the General Assembly, adding that all international disputes should be peacefully resolved through dialogue.

The Bush administration did not seek authorization from the U.N. Security Council for the invasion, which would have legitimized the action under international law.

On Wednesday, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the foreign ministers of Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia met to try to find a solution to the long-running dispute over Iran's nuclear ambitions. They urged Iran to come to the table for a new round of talks, and said it remained essential for Iran to prove its nuclear program is peaceful.

The U.S. and key Western allies fear Iran could try to process its low enriched uranium into highly enriched uranium to make an atomic weapon. Iran insists its nuclear program is purely peaceful, aimed solely at producing nuclear energy.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Iran leader’s speech prompts U.S. walkout

  1. Transcript of: Iran leader’s speech prompts U.S. walkout

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Now I want to talk about two major speeches before the UN General Assembly here in New York . President Obama addressed the Assembly on Thursday just hours before Iran 's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made some very incendiary comments about the 9/11 attacks. Those comments, by the way, led the US delegation to get up and walk out. NBC 's White House correspondent Chuck Todd has the latest on this. Chuck , good morning. Good to have you here.

    CHUCK TODD reporting: Good morning, Matt. Well, you know, the president wraps up his three-day tour here in New York for this United Nations gathering of world leaders. Going to use the chance to meet with some more leaders he's yet to meet since he's become president. But, of course, the spotlight stealer this week has been Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad .

    President BARACK OBAMA: I hear those voices of skepticism.

    TODD: While acknowledging that the path to Middle East peace is not easy, President Obama sounded like a politician on the stump, making the case before the United Nations that his plan for a permanent peace could be successful if the two sides simply seized the moment.

    Pres. OBAMA: If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations , an independent, sovereign state of Palestine living at peace with Israel .

    TODD: While the president spoke, first lady Michelle Obama was in the audience. A few hours later, the roles were reversed at the annual meeting of former President Clinton 's Global Initiative where Mr. Obama simply gushed about his wife.

    Pres. OBAMA: Bill Clinton understands where I'm coming from here. He knows what it's like to be married to somebody who's smarter, somebody who's better looking, somebody's who's just all-around a little more impressive than you are.

    TODD: The first lady talked about the importance of hiring US military veterans.

    Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: Right now the human potential of America 's veterans and military families is both vast and woefully under utilized.

    TODD: At almost the same time back at the UN , Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was suggesting that 9/11 was an American conspiracy to somehow help Israel .

    President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: That some segments within the US government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East in order to save the Zionist regime .

    TODD: He added that he plans to host his own conference on terrorism.

    Pres. AHMADINEJAD: I wish to announce here that next year the Islamic Republic of Iran will host a conference to study terrorism and the means to confront it.

    TODD: The entire rant about 9/11 caused the US delegation and a handful of other countries to walk out. Later, a White House spokesman called the comments "utterly outrageous and offensive, especially in the city where the 9/11 attacks occurred." And former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said, "this underscores the need to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," adding, "he is insane or giving a great interpretation of someone that is insane."

    ALI AROUZI reporting: I think it was -- it was a cry for attention. It was in a very sensitive place to make these comments. There was no reason for it, so there couldn't have been any other reason than to make headlines and be controversial.

    TODD: You know, this latest thing happening at the United Nations comes just as, of course, there's some diplomatic tension as the US tries to negotiate the release of those two more American hikers.

    LAUER: And we're going to have more on that right now. Chuck , thank you very much . Now here's Meredith .

Explainer: Leaders who dislike the U.S.

  • Image: Castro speaking
    Getty Images
    Former Cuban President Fidel Castro before the U.N. General Assembly in 1960.

    From meandering rants to impassioned speeches, world leaders have used the annual U.N. General Debate to launch attacks against the United States.

    Take Fidel Castro, for example. In 1960, the former Cuban president unleashed a record-setting four-hour, 29-minute speech in which he denounced the U.S.

    On Thursday, representatives of 192 countries will gather at the U.N. General Assembly in New York for this year's General Debate. Once again, some may use the forum to take on America.

    Leaders to watch: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Cuba’s Raul Castro and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.

    Click on next, or scroll down, to find out who likened former President Ronald Reagan to Rambo, who quipped to the U.N. that it "doesn't smell like sulfur anymore" and who delivered a tirade so exhausting even his personal interpreter passed out.

  • Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

     Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
    Don Emmert  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

    Beef with the U.S.: There are many, but sanctions against Tehran over nuclear technology is a top issue.

    Background: In the past, Ahmadinejad has used the general debate as a forum to defend Iran's nuclear program and assail its arch foes Israel and the United States, typically prompting walkouts by the U.S. and some European countries.

    Since the 1979 revolution that overthrew Iran's monarchy, Tehran and Washington have had no official relationship, a rift widened amid concerns about Iran's nuclear program and its human rights record.

    A Holocaust denier, Ahmadinejad accuses "Zionists" of preventing U.S. President Barack Obama from improving relations with Iran.

    Ahmadinejad has repeatedly said that Iran's nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and that it would not buckle to U.S. pressure to halt plans for further nuclear development.

    He has scoffed at U.N. sanctions imposed on his country over its nuclear stance. The sanctions have limited Iran's ability to attract foreign investment, pinched its ability to import gasoline, created a drag on its shipping business and hurt Iranian banking relationships worldwide.

  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

    Hugo Chavez
    Timothy A. Clary  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

    Beef with U.S.: SaysU.S. government is "first enemy" of Venezuela.

    Background: Chavez has a long history of attacking U.S. policy.

    At the General Assembly in 2006, he called former President George W. Bush "the devil" no fewer than eight times.

    "The devil is right at home. The devil, the devil himself, is right in the house. And the devil came here yesterday. Yesterday the devil came here. Right here. And it smells of sulphur still today," he said.

    The populist leader of a self-declared "socialist revolution," Chavez supports Cuba economically and politically. 

    Recently, Chavez softened his stance toward Obama. Recalling his "devil" speech, Chavez told the U.N., "It doesn't smell of sulfur. It's gone. It smells of something else. It smells of hope and you have hope in your heart."

    He has denounced capitalism as being a chief cause of climate change and accused Obama of making lofty promises and failing to live up to them.

  • Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe

    Robert Mugabe
    Michael Nagle  /  Getty Images
    President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe

    Beef with the U.S.: Sanctions imposed on the African nation.

    Background: He has lashed out repeatedly against Western powers, telling them to go "to hell" over sanctions imposed on his ZANU-PF party.

    The United States and European Union imposed sanctions on state firms and travel restrictions on Mugabe and dozens of his associates nearly 10 years ago, after a violent re-election campaign and often violent commercial farm seizures.

    "We say to hell, to hell, hell with them," Mugabe said in August. "Sanctions must go, and they must go. They are hurting our people regardless of political affiliation."

    The 86-year-old leader said he hoped Obama and new British Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg would move to mend ties between Harare and the West.

    "They have imposed unjustified and illegal sanctions on us. The sanctions are comparable to the military aggression in Iraq," he said.

    Meanwhile, Obama said he has been "heartbroken" by Zimbabwe's decline.

    Mugabe was forced into a power-sharing pact with his rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, more than a year ago after a crisis over a 2008 national vote that observers say was marred by violence and fraud.

  • Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega

    Daniel Ortega
    Spencer Platt  /  Getty Images
    Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega

    Beef with the U.S.: He says the U.S. is a worldwide dictatorship.

    Background: Since emerging as the leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front during the Reagan years, Ortega has railed against what he views as U.S. hegemony. He has defended Iran's and North Korea's right to pursue nuclear technology.

    In 1987, the Nicaraguan president addressed the world body as the Marxist leader of Nicaragua's Sandinista-run government.

    He slammed U.S. policy in Central America and told then-President Ronald Reagan that "Rambo only exists in the movies." Reagan referred to Ortega as "the little dictator."

    In 2007, Ortega said little had changed since his first visit to the U.N.

    "The presidents of the U.S. change. And they may come to office with the greatest of intentions and they may feel that they are doing good for humanity, but they fail to understand that they are no more than instruments of one more empire in a long list of empires that have been imposed on our planet,” Ortega said, waving his arms.

    The world is under "the most impressive, huge dictatorship that has existed — the empire of North America," he said.

    He defended North Korean and Iran in their push for nuclear technology. Said Ortega: "And even if they want nuclear power for purposes that are not peaceful, with what right does (the U.S.) question it?"

  • Bolivian President Evo Morales

    Image: Evo Morales
    Stan Honda  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Evo Morales, president of Bolivia

    Beef with the U.S.: Accuses U.S. of protecting and promoting drug trade.

    Background: Bolivia's first indigenous president, a fierce critic of Washington and global capitalism, wants to reverse centuries-old inequities in his country, which has long been dominated by light-skinned descendants of Europeans. The indigenous minority didn't have the vote until 1952.

    Morales is a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In promoting a socialist agenda, he nationalized control of Bolivia's natural gas reserves in 2006, alienating many investors and further polarizing South America's poorest nation.

    Two years ago, Bolivia kicked out the U.S. ambassador, accusing him of conspiring against the government. All U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agents and other personnel also were expelled.

  • Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi

    Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi
    Mario Tama  /  Getty Images
    Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi

    Beef with the U.S.: Accuses U.S. of controlling the U.N. Security Council.

    Background: Gadhafi made his first appearance at the U.N. last year. He slammed the Security Council and chastised the world body for failing to intervene or prevent some 65 wars since the U.N. was founded in 1945.

    Gadhafi called for reform of the U.N. Security Council, which has 15 members, including the United States, and leads the world body's mandate to maintain international peace.

    "It should not be called the Security Council, it should be called the 'terror council,'" he said. "Hence, the Security Council has been reduced to one country which controls it, therefore forming a danger to world peace."

    Tensions were high following Scotland's release of Libyan Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was convicted of the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, in which 270 people died.

    Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice left before Gadhafi even took the podium. Israel's U.N. delegation walked out during the speech.

    Iran's president also left before the speech ended.

    Ninety minutes into Gadhafi's 96-minute speech, an exhausted English-language interpreter passed out and was relieved by another translator.

  • Cuban President Raul Castro

    Image: Raul Castro
    Desmond Boylan  /  Reuters
    Cuba's President Raul Castro

    Beef with U.S.: Sees U.S. as enemy since 1959 Cuban revolution.

    Background: When Cuba's parliament named Raul Castro president in 2008, it ended nearly 50 years of rule by his brother Fidel but left the island's communist system unshaken.

    The United States and Cuba have not had formal diplomatic ties since 1961, though Washington is represented by a U.S. interest section in Havana.

    Since 2009, Obama has eased travel and remittance restrictions imposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, and resumed migration talks and direct postal service with the island.

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