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Tensions With Iran, Center Stage At The U.N.


Earlier today, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations General Assembly while Israelis openly debate a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities and President Obama warned yesterday that time for diplomacy was not unlimited. President Ahmadinejad did not directly mention his country's nuclear program nor did he address the sanctions that strain Iran's economy. He did denounce what he called the hegemony of arrogance and laid out his vision for a new world order.


PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: (Through translator) Political and security situation, unilateralism, application of double standards and the imposition of wars, instability and occupation to ensure economic interests and expand dominance over sensitive centers of the world have turned to be the order of the day. Arms race and intimidation by nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction by the hegemonic powers have become prevalent. Testing new generations of ultra-modern weaponry and a pledge to disclose these armaments on due time is now being used as a new language of threat against nations to coerce them into accepting a new era of hegemony.

(Through translator) Continued threat by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to military action against our great nation is a clear example of this bitter reality. A state of mistrust has cast its shadow on the international relations whilst there is no trusted or just authority to help resolve world conflicts. No one feels secure or safe, even those who have stockpiled thousands of atomic bombs and other arms in their arsenals.

(Through translator) Indeed, the environmental situation - the environment, as a commonwealth and heritage of the entire humankind and a constant guarantor of man's survival has been seriously damaged and devastated as a result of irresponsible and excessive use of resources, particularly by capitalists across the world, a situation that has caused massive drought, flood and pollutions, inflicting irrevocable(ph) damage and jeopardizing seriously human life on Earth.

(Through translator) Dear colleagues, despite advances in scientific knowledge and technology, the aspirations of Adam's children have not yet been fulfilled. Does anybody believe that continuation of the current order is capable of bringing happiness for human society? Today everyone is discontent and disappointed with the current international order.

CONAN: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the outgoing president of Iran. We heard his words through a U.N. interpreter. In several media appearances while he was in New York, President Ahmadinejad continued to profess that Iran's nuclear program is entirely peaceful and waived away the possibility of attacks from Israel or the United States, saying he did not take them seriously.

Ray Takeyh joins us now from a studio at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., where he's a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies. Nice to have you back with us.

RAY TAKEYH: Thanks very much for having me back.

CONAN: And in terms of rhetoric, has anything changed in the speeches that we've heard from Iran and from the United States this week?

TAKEYH: Well, President Ahmadinejad's speech was a more tempered speech. It was not accompanied by the usual bombasts and provocation. In the past he has used the U.N. podium to question the origins of 9/11. He has engaged in various aspects of that kind of rhetoric.

I would, however, say that although this speech may have been free from some of the rhetorical excesses of the past, it is a speech, and it is a global view predicated on a conspiracy, namely that there are these global powers, probably the United States, who are engaging in these hegemonic designs which are in essence attempt to exploit the material resources of developing countries for their own industrial advancement. They want to husband their nuclear monopoly, and that's why they are against nuclear science. In essence, what he is talking about is a sort of old variation of a North-South divide, The notion that the industrial capitalist West is determined to exploit and weaken the developing South for his own benefits. So although the speech may not have had some of the rhetorical provocations of the past, it does reflect the perspective that is based on conspiracy and ill-founded premises.

CONAN: A statement from the U.S. Mission at the United Nations described that, I think, as paranoid delusions and hateful slurs against the state of Israel. He did refer to Israel as a fake country, and there was a passing reference to 9/11.

TAKEYH: Yes, that's right. It's not completely free from his previous prohibitions, but nevertheless, I think there's a movement away from it. Although I think throughout these speeches, he has exhibited, not just President Ahmadinejad but other members of the Iranian official with him, as sort of a conspiracial(ph) view of international relations.

CONAN: And this is, as we mentioned, his swan song. His second term expires. He is not allowed to stand for third. It's unclear whether he could be elected to a third. But was this sort of a - some sort of a statement from him he wanted to leave perhaps on a more - I hesitate to use the word uplifting but - note?

TAKEYH: Well, it may be an indication of some maturity recognizing how his previous addresses have not always served his country well. But I think he views these occasions, particularly the U.N. General Assembly, as a time of a sort of public education and public diplomacy. Therefore, I think he insisted on - he wanted to make the points that he did regarding the international order and his preference for a new order, however that - ill-defined that may be.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And do you take him seriously when he says he doesn't take the threats of the possibility that Israel or the United States might strike, that he doesn't take that seriously?

TAKEYH: It's hard to assess Iranian views on the probability or the possibility of a military strike. You know, not being part of the council was difficult to assess that. I would think that any Iranian officials tend to take these threats seriously, just they have to. And the way they usually respond to it is to suggest all kinds of Iranian capacity for retaliation.

In essence, that rhetoric is designed to provide some sort of a deterrence and lend credence to the suggestions that an attack on Iran will have unpredictable, if not cataclysmic consequences. He has always been flamboyant and have sort of a devil-may-care attitude about these things. But I think if you look at the sum total of rhetoric coming out of Iran, they are trying to suggest that Iranian response will be dramatic and serious. And I think that's a means of essentially putting up some sort of a deterrence to such possible strikes.

CONAN: Just this week, a senior official in the Revolutionary Guard reiterated that there would be, if there was such an attack, even if it was just by Israel, on American bases in and around the Persian Gulf.

TAKEYH: That's right. That's actually quite a routine declaration, namely that Iran will retaliate in the time and the place of his own choosing. And just because the attack comes from Israel, that doesn't mean other targets, other installation and other countries are not susceptible to retaliation. And if you look at President Ahmadinejad's speech, he essentially suggested that Israel is acting as an agent of Iran when he talked about, you know, how Zionists are trying to cast aspersions...

CONAN: Agent of the United States.

TAKEYH: Oh, well, that's right, that's right, precisely. So essentially he views the two - and that's true about Iranian official in large measures. They view the two as co-joints. So if there is an Israeli strike, they essentially perceive that that would have - come at the behest and approval and planning with the United States.

CONAN: There was another issue that a lot of people wanted to talk to him about and that was support for the regime in Damascus. And he denied that they are providing help even though there have been, as I understand it, Iranians found in Syria.

TAKEYH: Well, the Iranian - the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard himself has acknowledged that members of his military force are present and advising the Syrian government. Again, that's an old Iranian trick to kind of suggest that their relationships - whether it's Hezbollah, whether it's Hamas and now, the Syrian regime - that they have limited interaction with it. And when they acknowledge those interactions, they suggest they're for peaceful purposes. They're not material, military forces and military supplies and so forth. So he's within that particular genre of Iranian denial.

CONAN: There was another interesting comment in one of his media appearances. He said that the - despite the sanctions, the people in Iran are better off than they were when he took office eight years ago. That strains credulity.

TAKEYH: Indeed it does, and you can actually quantitatively disprove that particular proposition. Inflation is high. The currency is in difficulty. Unemployment remains high even for an Iranian economy with all this opacity and even though it's difficult to quantitatively measure the cost of sanctions. Sanctions have been so punitive and so costly that you again see it in all aspects of Iranian life, particularly in terms of commerce, in terms of trade and also in terms of internal life of Iranians. This is actually has been quite devastating for Iran.

And it should be noted that Iran had substantial oil revenues during the tenure of President Ahmadinejad because his entire tenure largely coincided with high oil prices. And at the end of it, Iran really doesn't have much to show for that in terms of industrial development, in terms of public health or public education. A lot of money came into that country during his tenure. A lot of it was wasted. Mismanagement was the basis of economic difficulties that this country has experienced. That mismanagement has been compounded by economic sanctions.

He took an approach to economic planning, which was arcane. He dismissed the budget directors. He dismissed the budget office. And he essentially was very instinctive and not particular emphasis on planning. So a combination of mismanagement, ill judgment and sanctions have proven quite devastating for Iran's economy and everyday life of Iranians indeed.

CONAN: Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And as we mentioned, he is a lame duck and also well, on the outs with the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and there are reports today that his top press adviser has been taken into custody and will serve six months in prison for publishing materials contrary to Islamic norms. What does that say about his political standing? And this is the second time his press secretary has been under such censure and we'll see how this issue works out.

TAKEYH: Yes, President Ahmadinejad attempted to expropriate power. He attempted to transgress the prerogatives of the supreme leader, and he realized that institutional balance of power in that particular regime is still with the supreme leader. The only way he could have taken on the supreme leader is if he had some sort of a popular backing, an electoral legitimacy, which he did not.

So once he got into a confrontation with the supreme leader, he neither had institutional power on his side in terms of state agencies and state institutions nor the public backing. So he was largely ineffective, if not, naked in that power struggle, a power struggle that he has lost rather decisively as indicated by this later episode but many other such episodes as well.

CONAN: And has anyone been selected by the - to be his successor? Do we know who's going to be in this election?

TAKEYH: It's hard to say who that person is, but we can pretty much speculate on the attributes that the supreme leader is looking for. That individual just does not just have to be conservative and abide by the ideology of the state, but he also has to have reverence for the office of supreme leader. But also, he has to be a person of limited ambition. What President Ahmadinejad proved is that a conservative disciple can still prove unruly if he harbors an ardent ambition.

So when he surveys the landscapes, the supreme leader will look for someone who's ideologically reliable, pious because corruption is a charge that inflicts the regime but also someone who has some degree of limitations in terms of ambition and so forth. And therefore, that person will not challenge the supreme leader as President Ahmadinejad did because I don't think the supreme leader wants to go through the Ahmadinejad episode yet again.

CONAN: We did not hear anything new from President Ahmadinejad about Iran's nuclear programs during his appearances in New York. Did you hear anything new yesterday from President Obama?

TAKEYH: Well, President Obama reiterated some of the themes that he has reiterated before, a number of addresses that he gave on this particular issue. Three points come across from his talk, from his speech, if you would. Number one, that the president still believes that this issue may, in fact, be susceptible to a diplomatic resolution although he is obviously concerned about time that is being lapsed.

Number two is the president ruled out containment, as he did in one - at least one other occasion in his talk to AIPAC and other such gestures. Basically, he emphasized that his policy is prevention. Iran, he suggested rather strongly, is not going to have nuclear weapons, and he essentially feels that this issue can still be resolved through a diplomatic settlement. But he certainly was quite aggressive in taking containment off the table.

CONAN: And time, he said, was not unlimited.

TAKEYH: Precisely, yeah. That's right. So he is prone to a diplomatic engagement process but he - nevertheless, he recognizes that time is not advantageous to that particular process.

CONAN: One other player speaks tomorrow. This, of course, is the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. So Benjamin Netanyahu will be there at the United Nations tomorrow, and he has been blunt as is his wont.

TAKEYH: Well, Prime Minister Netanyahu has certainly stressed how dangerous he feels Iranian threat is and he's - from his perspective. He is in the Middle East. He's in the region. His proximity to Iran is much closer. He views the Iranian nuclear issue with a greater degree of urgency just by his circumstances, geographical situation and so forth. And he feels Iran, particularly the rhetoric that's coming out of Iran, married to an increased capability in terms of nuclear science as an existential threat to his country. And I think you can count on him to emphasize those points.

I think, from everything that you see in terms of his declarations that are becoming more emphatic, he seems to feel that time is even less of a commodity than President Obama does. So that's essentially the disharmony between these three powers. They all think they have - Iranians certainly think they have time. The president think time is running out for a diplomatic arrangement, and President Netanyahu feels that time perhaps has already ran out for such diplomatic niceties.

CONAN: He said that Iranians would be 90 percent of the way to a bomb in six to eight months.

TAKEYH: Yes. I think he's talking about further developments in, particularly, the Fordow underground facility because based upon the level of work that is being done on that facility, it can essentially be completed within that timeframe. Although I think that's still an optimistic timeframe. But so I think he's looking at the development of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and completion of various installations and plants as leading to his timeline running out.

CONAN: Ray Takeyh, as always, thanks very much for your time.

TAKEYH: Thanks very much for having me.

CONAN: Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He joined us from a studio there. Tomorrow, why some students are complaining the new school lunches leave them hungry. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.