TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) -Iran’s hard-line president, who has berated the United States and refused to compromise on his nuclear program, is now softening his tone, saying Monday he wants dialogue rather than confrontation in Iraq. Tehran also denied it gave sophisticated weapons to militants to attack U.S. forces.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted that turmoil in Iraq is bad for his country and dialogue — not force — was the solution to the region’s conflicts.
“We shy away from any kind of conflict, any kind of bloodshed,” Ahmadinejad told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “As we have said repeatedly, we think that the world problems can be solved through dialogue, through the use of logic and a sense of friendship. There is no need for the use of force.”
Known for his inflammatory anti-Western rhetoric, Ahmadinejad in recent weeks has taken a milder approach to diplomacy. The change in tone comes at a time when domestic criticism of the controversial leader has increased, with both reformers and fellow conservatives complaining that Ahmadinejad spends too much time criticizing the United States and Israel, and not enough on internal issues such as Iran’s struggling economy.
At the same time, the U.S. appears to be hardening its accusations against Iran, including claims that the highest levels of the Iranian leadership armed Shiites in Iraq with sophisticated armor-piercing roadside bombs that have killed more than 170 troops from the U.S.-led coalition.
Iran on Monday staunchly denied the accusations, comparing them to Washington’s allegations before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were ever found.
“Such accusations cannot be relied upon or be presented as evidence. The United States has a long history in fabricating evidence. Such charges are unacceptable,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran.
The White House on Monday did not back down from its allegations, saying it was confident the report about the weapons flow from Iran to Iraq was accurate.
“This is providing — presenting evidence to the effect that there’s been the shipment of weaponry, lethal weaponry into Iraq, some of it of Iranian providence,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said. “And this is something that we think if the president of Iran wants to put a stop to it, we wish him luck and hope he’ll do it real soon.”
But Ahmadinejad dismissed the allegations as “pieces of paper” that don’t prove the claims, emphasizing instead that Iran’s security was dependent on Iraq’s stability.
“Our position regarding Iraq is very clear. We are asking for peace. We’re asking for security. And we will be sad to see people get killed, no matter who they are,” he said.
Ahmadinejad, who was elected more than a year ago, has focused much of his diplomacy on verbally attacking the U.S. and Israel. In December, he hosted a conference that questioned whether the Nazi Holocaust took place and has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”
Despite drawing world attention, his hard-line tactics have not boosted his popularity at home. Ahmadinejad suffered an embarrassing blow in December’s municipal elections, which were widely seen as a referendum on his support. At the same time, newspaper editorials urging him to cool down and focus on issues closer to home began popping up.
In what may have been one of his biggest steps backward, Ahmadinejad this week refrained from making a widely anticipated announcement Sunday about Iran’s contentious nuclear program that was sure to have provoked the U.S. and its allies who allege Tehran is secretly developing atomic weapons.
Ahmadinejad had hinted he was going to announce on the 28th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that saw hard-line clerics take power in Iran that his country had begun installing 3,000 centrifuges at its nuclear plant at Natanz — a move widely seen as a defiant gesture to international community, which has demanded Iran suspend uranium enrichment. Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes.
But during the ceremonies Sunday, Ahmadinejad never mentioned the centrifuges. And although he vowed not to give up enrichment, he said his country was prepared to talk.
The change in tone comes as the U.N. Security Council threatens to slap steeper sanctions on Iran over its refusal to suspend enrichment, a potential pathway to developing nuclear arms. The Security Council first agreed two months ago to impose limited sanctions on Iran.
The United States and Iran have regarded each other with distrust and suspicion since the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by militant students. Recent suggestions for the two countries to talk have been dismissed on both sides.
The White House recently authorized U.S. troops in Iraq to kill or capture Iranian agents deemed to be a threat. Earlier this month, gunmen wearing Iraqi army uniforms seized an Iranian diplomat as he drove through central Baghdad. That incident came nearly a month after the U.S. detained five Iranians in northern Iraq. In December, two diplomats were released to Iranian officials after being detained for more than a week.
When asked Monday about the detentions, Ahmadinejad said arresting people without charging them is not the solution.
“I think this was childish of the U.S. government to do something like arresting defenseless people, not allowing them to talk to anyone,” he told ABC. “This is not a solution to the problem. The solution is somewhere else.”