UNITED NATIONS, (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will face off at a distance over Middle East democracy and nuclear weapons when both address the United Nations on Tuesday.
Bush faces growing international skepticism over his policies for Iran and Iraq, with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warning that Iraq was in grave danger of descending into civil war and French President Jacques Chirac arguing against a rush to impose sanctions on Iran.
U.S. officials said that, undeterred by setbacks in Iraq war and the Palestinian territories, Bush would stress his so-called “Freedom Agenda” of aggressively promoting democracy, calling the Middle East “the central battlefield.”
“The president … will lay out his positive vision for the Middle East, the bright, democratic future that we see for the Middle East in contra-distinction to some who have almost a backward-looking vision for that region,” a senior administration official told reporters.
Annan pointedly countered that optimism last week when he said after touring the Middle East that most leaders in the region thought the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein had been a “disaster.”
The indirect clash between Bush and the hard-line Iranian leader comes at a sensitive moment in a stand-off over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as the European Union tries to coax Tehran into suspending uranium enrichment to allow for negotiations.
The United States and Iran have no relations and Washington has said it will enter talks with Iran only if the Islamic Republic halts sensitive nuclear work which the West suspects is aimed at developing an atom bomb.
The Bush administration is calling for sanctions after Iran defied an Aug. 31 U.N. deadline to halt enrichment, but European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said it would be wrong to push such a resolution when the EU was making “real progress” in talks with Tehran.
Solana told Spanish-speaking reporters he would meet with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, in New York on the sidelines of this week’s U.N. General Assembly session.
Asked in an interview with Time magazine why Iran would not suspend enrichment as a confidence-building measure, Ahmadinejad said: “Whose confidence should be built?” “The world? Who is the world? The United States? The U.S. administration is not the entire world. Europe does not account for one-twentieth of the entire world,” he said.
Jewish organizations and exiled Iranian opposition groups protested against Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York over his calls for Israel to be wiped off the map, his questioning of the Nazi Holocaust and Iran’s human rights record.
In his maiden U.N. speech last year, Ahmadinejad delivered an anti-Western tirade and offered to share Iran’s nuclear technology with other developing countries.
Compared to last year, the United Nations is back in the spotlight after negotiating a cease-fire in Lebanon and trying to organize peacekeepers for Sudan’s lawless Darfur region.
The crises have helped the organization make a comeback after several years of unrelenting attacks, particularly in the United States, for mismanagement and lethargy, although it is still hampered by polarization between rich and poor nations.
In the United States, Annan, who ends 10 years in office on Dec. 31, and the world body are often viewed as standing in the way of American objectives. Elsewhere, he and the U.N. Security Council are often seen as doing America’s bidding.
Among the 27 world leaders speaking on Tuesday are Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, South African President Thabo Mbeki, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, French President Jacques Chirac, Mexican President Vicente Fox, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Jordanian King Abdullah II Bin Al Hussein and Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
The General Assembly session of presidents, prime and foreign ministers runs until Sept. 27.