Iran's president said Monday he is proud to stoke international outrage with his latest remarks denying the Holocaust as he heads for the United Nations this week — showing he is as defiant as ever while his country comes under greater pressure to curtail its nuclear program.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad takes the world stage with a speech Wednesday to the U.N. General Assembly. He appears intent on showing he has not been weakened by three months of turmoil at home, where the pro-reform opposition has staged dramatic protests claiming Ahmadinejad's victory in June presidential elections was fraudulent.
Ahmadinejad has a reason to try to present his government as strong: On Oct. 1, Iran is to enter key negotiations with the United States and other powers seeking concessions on Iran's nuclear program.
The U.S. and its allies suspect Iran is secretly pursuing a nuclear weapon, warning that Tehran already has enough enriched uranium to build a bomb. Iran denies the accusations, saying it only aims to generate electricity.
Doesn't want focus on nuclear issue
Heading into the talks, Iran has firmly rejected demands it give up uranium enrichment, a process that can produce either fuel for a nuclear reactor or a warhead. And it doesn't want the talks to focus on the nuclear issue at all. But American and European officials warn that if no progress is made in the meetings, they will push for tougher U.N. sanctions against Iran.
In New York, Ahmadinejad is likely to come under heavy pressure over the nuclear issue. And his every step will be dogged by Iranian exiles, who plan protests over his government's postelection crackdown against the opposition. Already, exiles have been lobbying New York hotels to reject events where the Iranian president is to appear.
But Ahmadinejad appears to relish the controversy. This will be his fifth appearance at the annual General Assembly since his first election in 2005. In past years, he has used his U.N. visits to bolster his credentials as a figure of resistance to Israel and American domination — an image that he believes plays well among his conservative supporters in Iran.
He stoked the fires ahead of the visit with new comments casting doubt on the Holocaust. Asked about widespread condemnation of such remarks, Ahmadinejad said Monday: "The anger of the world's professional killers is (a source of) pride for us," according to state news agency IRNA.
During a speech Friday, he questioned whether the Holocaust was "a real event" and called it a pretext used by Jews to trick the West into backing the creation of Israel. He said the Jewish state was created out of "a lie and a mythical claim."
The United States branded the speech "hateful." Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said Monday that Ahmadinejad "yet again shames the great tradition of the noble Iranian people" and has chosen "the violent repression of Iranians over a policy of friendship and cooperation that would have promoted their welfare and their honor."
Options remain ‘on the table’
Israel often touts Ahmadinejad's comments on the Holocaust — and his predictions of the Jewish state's demise — as proof of the threat from Iran if it obtains nuclear weapons.
Israeli military chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, said Monday that all options remain "on the table" in dealing with Iran's nuclear program, indicating that the country has not abandoned the possibility of a military strike.
Along with his anti-Israel and anti-U.S. rhetoric, Ahmadinejad often portrays himself as the champion of a new world order ending Western domination and providing justice for developing nations.
The president's message during his U.N. visit will be "peace and friendship for all nations, fighting suppression and interaction with all nations in the framework of justice and mutual respect," said a spokesman for Ahmadinejad's office, Mohammad Jafar Mohammadzadeh, according to IRNA.
Ahmadinejad has courted controversy in previous visits. In 2007, during a speech and question-and-answer session at New York's Columbia University, he sat through a scathing criticism by the elite university's president. He was jeered at the same gathering for defending Holocaust revisionists and claiming there are no homosexuals in Iran.
Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst as the Washington-based RAND Corp., said Ahmadinejad is playing to an audience at home, trying to distract from the controversy over his election. "But I think that his credibility and legitimacy have been so damaged that this isn't going to help him in Iran," Nader said.
In fact, courting controversy could hurt him even with fellow conservatives in Iran, some of whom feel the president needlessly turns European countries against Iran, he said.
"It makes engagement with Iran more difficult for Western countries," Nader said. "It calls into question his seriousness in engaging the West."
In the Oct. 1 talks, Iran's nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili is to meet with European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, as well as U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns and representatives from Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany.
Ultimate say on Iran's nuclear program lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who stands at the top of the country's clerical leadership. On Sunday, Khamenei took a tough line, saying accusations Iran was seeking a bomb are "a lie and a trick against the Islamic Republic."
"The American government must change its policy," Khamenei said. "The Iranian people are watchful against this animosity and will stand up against it."