UNITED NATIONS – After several days of controversy, heckling and vitriolic headlines in the local tabloid newspapers, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York was capped Wednesday by a 76-22 U.S. Senate vote calling on the Bush administration to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
Wednesday’s congressional rebuke a few hours before Ahmadinejad’s Iran Air 747 departed reflected what American scholars and Iranians alike depicted as a missed opportunity by the Iranian president to ease mounting tensions between Iran and the West, particularly the United States.
“He had an opportunity to present himself to the American people in a way that would make conflict less likely. And I don’t think he succeeded,” said John Coatsworth, the Columbia University dean who moderated a speech in which Ahmadinejad insisted on Iran’s right to pursue a nuclear program, denied the existence of Iranian gays and defended additional research on the existence of the Holocaust.
Although Ahmadinejad told the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday that Iran considers its nuclear plans “closed” to further debate, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice planned to be in New York for a meeting Friday of the five veto-wielding U.N. powers, plus Germany, to discuss the scope and timing of new international sanctions against Iran for failing to comply with a U.N. mandate to suspend uranium enrichment.
Members of the United Nations are concerned that Iran could divert its enrichment program to eventually develop a nuclear weapon.
U.S. officials said Ahmadinejad’s speech gave them new ammunition to argue for more punitive steps than the Russians and Chinese have been willing to accept.
“I am sorry to tell President Ahmadinejad that the case is not closed,” said Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns in New York.
“The Iranian president is badly mistaken if he thinks the international community is going to forget about the fact that his country is continuing – against the will of the U.N. Security Council – its nuclear research programs.”
But Ahmadinejad, who was elected in 2005, seemed mostly untroubled by the reaction to his conversations with American academics, religious leaders, think-tank chiefs, media and even former U.S. officials.
At the Tuesday dinner, Ahmadinejad fended off direct challenges about his statements on the Holocaust, Iran’s human rights practices and its long-term nuclear intentions.
Warned by former Clinton administration National Security Council staff member Gary Samore that the risk of a military confrontation will increase over the next six months without a change by Iran on its nuclear program and aid to Iraqi militias, Ahmadinejad was dismissive.
“I don’t think the risk of war has increased. What problems can be solved by war?” he said.
The Iranian leader also seemed unworried about possible sanctions legislation moving forward in 15 U.S. states, requiring companies to divest holdings in Iranian enterprises.