Middle East


Ahmadinejad Challenges Bush to a Debate at the U.N. General Assembly

U.S. President George W. Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad challenged Bush to a debate at the U.N. General Assembly in mid-September. "My trip to New York is a good opportunity to organize a public debate so that the entire world, in particular Americans, can watch it without it being censored," he said in a statement. (Photo: AFP-Getty Images)

It is now three times that the president of Iran has openly challenged his American counterpart to engage in direct talks.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his first attempt by writing a lengthy 18-page letter, full of religious and moral sermons, to U.S. President George W. Bush on May 8. The historical letter ended 27 years of political silence between the two countries.

After receiving no response from the Bush administration, Ahmadinejad has now invited the American president to a debate at this year's United Nations General Assembly meeting. On Sept. 6, during a cabinet meeting, Ahmadinejad posited that the occasion would be a good opportunity for the debate, stating, "The ones who refuse the debate proposal are afraid of their nation's power and rationalism."

The president of Iran continued that, "if they [the American administration] want they can consult with their advisers and attend the debate collectively…. The reputable news media of the world — those of them that respect truthfulness and abide by the rule of objectivity in their profession — can take advantage of that opportunity to provide a chance for the world's nations to hear the viewpoints and to choose the best."

The debate proposal was first mentioned during the Iranian president's third televised press conference, held on Aug. 29. The conference coincided with a new phase of Iran's nuclear case before the U.N. Security Council, which is studying possible punitive sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Ahmadinejad opened the session by giving a speech on how from his point of view, the legacy of World War II has left the power in the hands of some Western countries, particularly the U.S., and how these powers are "abusing" this heritage. He then went on to speak about the recent Middle East crisis in Lebanon, and eventually brought up his favorite topic — questioning the existence of holocaust, a subject which has so far caused a massive wave of international condemnation, and of course has bought him worldwide fame.

"In the past 60 years the Zionist regime [Israel] has imposed tens of offensives in the region ... the most recent of all, the violent attack on Lebanon. And the interesting point is that all of this regime has been based on a story, and questioning it is considered an unforgivable crime," he said.

Mentioning the recent publication of Islam's prophet cartoons across Europe which triggered a wave of anger among Muslims, he again challenged European countries' sensitivity over the matter of the holocaust: "In some countries insulting the great divine prophets of Islam and Christianity is justified as the freedom of speech, while asking about how the second world war began and also about its effects is prohibited and may result in conviction and prison."

Recently a British historian, David Irving, was sentenced to three years in prison in Austria, after being charged because of a speech he made in 1989 denying the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Moving on to the issue of Iran's nuclear crisis, Ahmadinejad did not have anything new to say. He once more emphasized that Iran's nuclear program is totally peaceful, that Iran has deliberately opened the doors of its nuclear facility to the watchdogs of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and that no evidence of any attempts to produce nuclear weapons has been found. He then challenged Western countries, and particularly U.S., on their nuclear programs:

"Reporters and the cameras visited our facility. We are sure about our own intentions; now my question for them [the West/U.S.] is will they also agree to open the doors of their nuclear facilities to reporters? Who is making bombs today in the world? Whom should one be afraid of? Who is destablizing [the world/the middle east region]? ... They have even once used their nuclear weapons. Less than a month has passed from the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They should be ashamed of themselves for talking about trust ... It is them who must give answers, not us."

Asked about the issue of the international community's general opinion about Iran's nuclear program, Ahmadinejad pointed out that majority of the nations around the globe have recognized the Iran's right to develop a peaceful nuclear program:

"I do not think that we should consider the two or three conqueror states of World War II equal to the international community ... the International community means six billion people and more than 190 countries, among which more than 160 - 170 have recognized our right develop a peaceful nuclear program."

Debate Challenge

But among all of the topics discussed at the press conference, most of them economic questions related to the untamable rise of prices in Iran during last year, it was Ahmadinejad's debate proposal to Bush that received the most attention.

In the speech he gave before questions began, the Iranian president lambasted Bush's policies, which he called suppressive and force-oriented. He then proposed to sit down with his American counterpart in a live T.V. debate: "We will announce our viewpoints on the solutions to resolving current international problems and they will give their own. The only condition to this debate is that there should not be any kind of censorship ... Let's give the international community a chance to choose themselves. It is the time to respect the thought, character, and intelligence of nations."

Proposing such a debate indicates a major shift in foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran towards America. During the 27 years of the post-Islamic Revolution era, the idea of talking with an American official under any circumstances was considered taboo. Even the most liberal and moderate president that Iran has elected in the 27 years, reformist Mohammad Khatami, never got the green light from the Supreme Leadership to move beyond his "Dialogue Between Civilizations" to an official talk or debate.

However, his ultra-conservative successor has straightforwardly suggested direct talks at every opportunity, whether on Iraq's situation, on the nuclear issue, and now the idea of debate. Ahmadinejad did not seek to establish grounds for a hostile discussion: "The principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran's foreign policy is based on relations. We are willing to have relations with all countries, except for the only country that we do not recognize its statehood [Israel], and consider it imposed and illegitimate. Except for that, we are willing to have relations with all of the other countries. The U.S. is not exempted from this general formula."

These remarks are exactly the type that previously had always been characterized by Tehran as impossible. Knowing that the major principles and redlines of the Islamic Republic are determined directly by the Supreme Leadership, many observers believe that such ideas about communicating with Washington could signal of a major shift in Iran's foreign policy.

However, following Ahmadinejad's challenge the White House dismissed the idea of a debate, describing it as a diversion.

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