Iranian Leader Softens Anti-Israel Rhetoric in UN Speech

Iran’s president made no overt calls for Israel’s destruction and omitted any mention of his nation’s disputed nuclear program during a United Nations speech that instead offered his vision of a spiritual world.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s address to the annual UN General Assembly yesterday was tame by comparison to his previous appearances before the world body and didn’t prompt walkouts by Western delegations as in the past. The U.S., Israel and Canada boycotted the speech to protest past offensive remarks.

The Iranian leader couched his words as an appeal for peace, asserting that “Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus” and other religions aren’t hostile to one another and “are all devoted to the cause of justice, purity and love,” according to an English translation.

Still, Ahmadinejad denounced what he called a “continued threat by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to military action against our great nation.” He also criticized intimidation through nuclear weapons and “wrong management of the world” by the “self-proclaimed centers of power who have entrusted themselves to the Devil,” an apparent dig at the U.S. and other Western powers.

With Ahmadinejad completing his second term and unable to run again, the speech may have been an effort to use his final address before the world body to paint himself as a peace-seeking leader, said Iran analysts such as former CIA Iranian targets officer Reuel Marc Gerecht.

Two Audiences

The 30-minute address was also likely aimed at two audiences: the one in New York listening in translation for references to current events, which were few, and the one in Iran able to comprehend his Farsi nuances and his call to the Shiite faithful, Iran specialists said.

“Ahmadinejad is trying to be more poetic in his swan song, but he’s just as trenchant here in dividing the world, in underscoring the clash of civilizations and the evil that lurks among us,” said Gerecht, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy group in Washington.

Gerecht, who read the speech in Farsi as well as in English, said in an interview that it was “one of his best speeches, because what he’s trying to do is reveal his inner soul. He’s at his most sincere and -- I hesitate to use the word soft -- but he’s using this as a call to Islam.”

While the language may have been too veiled or “poetic” for an American audience to understand easily, Gerecht said, the speech nonetheless was “a very powerful anti-American, anti-Semitic attack.”

‘Big Lie’

Ahmadinejad called the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks “tragic,” a contrast to two years ago when he called them “a big lie.” Still, he said a “fact-finding team” should have been formed to reveal “the truth behind the incident,” which Gerecht said was a reference to conspiracy theories that the U.S. was behind the attacks.

After years of walking out during Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitic tirades, European Union diplomats apparently weren’t offended enough to leave this time. One diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of protocol, said the Iranian president’s only crime this time was incoherence.

Other analysts such as Alireza Nader pointed to Ahmadinejad’s less overt denunciations of Israel than in past UN speeches as a sign that he is worried about a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities and wants to rally international opinion behind Iran as a peace-loving nation.

‘Toned Down’

“Given the amount of pressure Iran faces, it is not surprising that Ahmadinejad has toned down his rhetoric at least a little bit,” said Nader, a senior analyst in the Arlington, Virginia, office of the Rand Corporation, a research group. “He has been consistently criticized by his opponents, including conservatives in Iran, for being a loose cannon by being provocative and undiplomatic.”

Since 2005, when the Iranian president said Israel should be “wiped off the map,” tensions between the two nations have escalated steadily. The Iranian president has previously denied the history of the Holocaust.

Asked at a news conference whether he intentionally toned down his remarks about Israel, Ahmadinejad said the reporter should reread the speech.

In his address, the Iranian president didn’t once mention Iran’s nuclear program, which has been the focus of diplomatic efforts, economic sanctions and debate over military action.

The U.S. and its allies suspect Iran is using its atomic energy program as a cover for developing a nuclear weapons capability. Since April, the U.S., France, the U.K., Germany, China and Russia have pursued three rounds of diplomacy to persuade Iran to abandon illicit aspects of its nuclear program.

Netanyahu Speech

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’ll address world leaders at the UN today, has said he may have to launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if talks fail.

In his news conference, Ahmadinejad said it wasn’t possible for Iran to abandon its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent purity, as negotiators have demanded, because uranium is needed to fuel a medical reactor. International experts say Iran is producing more of the medium-enriched uranium than needed for its one medical reactor, and the International Atomic Energy Agency says it can’t be sure Iran’s program is peaceful.

Ahmadinejad’s speech yesterday “revolved around one central theme: Iran does not threaten the security of the Middle East, rendering military action against its nuclear facilities illegitimate,” said Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research group.

‘Military Threat’

Khalaji said in an interview yesterday that the tone of the speech appeared to reflect that “Iranian leaders have started to understand the genuine nature of military threat.”

He said “Iranian leaders employ rhetoric that is far less aggressive than their usual standard” when military confrontation becomes a concern, such as when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and Iran feared it might be next.

Still others, such as Karim Sadjadpour, saw in his words an effort to shape his legacy.

“Ahmadinejad was so explicitly offensive in previous speeches at the UN that this year his more implicitly offensive speech appeared almost statesman-like,” said Sadjadpour, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Ahmadinejad sees his constituency as the so-called global 99 percent whom he believes share his anti-imperialist worldview.”

He’s “positioning himself as a global political figure, the Bill Clinton of the Islamist, anti-imperialist world,” Sadjadpour said.

‘Shaping Legacy’

Ali Alfoneh, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, agreed that Ahmadinejad is “busy shaping his legacy both at home and abroad.” His tenor in interviews as well as the speech were an effort to depict himself as a peacemaker, which Alfoneh called “an unlikely legacy” if “his past behavior taken into consideration.”

Gerecht said the speech wasn’t a total makeover but rather Ahmadinejad’s vision of religious salvation.

“He has always loved to talk about ‘peace and love,’ but you need to always remember that what he’s doing is calling you to Islam -- Shiite Islam,” he said. “His entire speech can only properly be understood as a farewell missionary effort.”

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