TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) – The United States is incapable of inflicting “serious damage” on Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday, as a second U.S. aircraft carrier group steamed toward the Gulf as a warning from Washington for Iran to back down in its attempts to dominate the region.
In an interview with Iranian state television, Ahmadinejad said Washington had not stepped up its campaign against Tehran, despite the standoff with the West over Iran’s defiance of U.N. demands to halt uranium enrichment. The U.N. Security Council imposed limited sanctions on Iran last month.
“U.S. rhetoric against Iran has not increased,” Ahmadinejad said. “In 2003, they openly threatened to attack Iran. Now they have indirectly made such threats.”
He spoke with confidence over Iran’s ability to withstand a strike. “The United States is unable to inflict serious damage on Iran,” the president said. He also noted, “They (U.S.) are not really in a position to carry out this action (of attacking Iran). I believe there are many wise people in the United States who would not let it happen.”
Iran says its atomic program is aimed solely at generating energy, but the United States and some of its allies suspect it is geared toward making nuclear weapons.
Ahmadinejad, during a meeting Tuesday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, accused the U.S. of stirring up conflict between rival Muslim sects to maintain influence in the Middle East.
“The U.S. intends to cause insecurity and dispute and weaken independent governments in the region to continue with its dominance over the Middle East and achieve its arrogant goals,” Ahmadinejad said, according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA.
Opinion-makers from both ends of Iran’s political spectrum have recently criticized Ahmadinejad, accusing him of stirring opposition to Iran by taking a hard line on the nuclear dispute and employing fiery anti-Western rhetoric.
But Ahmadinejad said his goals were peaceful. “Iran is not seeking confrontation with anybody,” he told the state television interviewers.
U.S. officials have long refused to rule out any options in the faceoff with Tehran, but say military action would be a last resort.
Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, ruled out direct negotiations with Iran and said a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran was “not possible” until Iran halts uranium enrichment.
“The Middle East isn’t a region to be dominated by Iran. The Gulf isn’t a body of water to be controlled by Iran. That’s why we’ve seen the United States station two carrier battle groups in the region,” Burns said Tuesday in an address to influential think-tank Gulf Research Center, based in the United Arab Emirates.
“Iran is going to have to understand that the United States will protect its interests if Iran seeks to confront us,” Burns continued.
Some among the audience of Dubai-based diplomats and analysts complained that American wars in the Middle East were already threatening the region’s stability and asked Burns to sort out Iraq and the Israel-Palestinian conflict before turning attention to Iran.
“What we are not interested in is another war in the region,” Mohammed al-Naqbi, who heads the Gulf Negotiations Center, told Burns. “Iraq is your problem, not the problem of the Arabs. You destroyed a country that had institutions. You handed that country to Iran. Now you are crying to Europe and the Arabs to help you out of this mess.”
The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and accompanying warships have been sent to the Gulf as part of a buildup of forces that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said is aimed to impress on Iran that the four-year war in Iraq has not made America vulnerable.
The Stennis, which is expected to arrive in late February, will join an aircraft carrier group already in the region, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The Stennis’s arrival in the Middle East will mark the first time since the U.S.-led Iraq invasion in 2003 that the United States has had two carrier battle groups in the region.
Iran conducted missile tests on Monday, the first of five days of military maneuvers. The Islamic republic also barred 38 inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog — the International Atomic Energy Agency, prompting fears that it was seeking to restrict access to its facilities.
“This is obviously not a sign of goodwill, nor a sign of willingness to cooperate with the international community,” French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei told reporters.
But Ali Larijani, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, said Tuesday that the decision had been misinterpreted and that there had been no change in Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA.