NEW YORK – President Barack Obama and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traded heated remarks Friday on the emotional subject of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and hopes for a quick resumption of talks on Iran’s suspect nuclear program appeared to fade.
Obama accused Ahmadinejad of making “offensive” and “hateful” comments when he said most of the world thinks the United States was behind the attacks to benefit Israel. The Iranian president defended his remarks from a day earlier at the United Nations General Assembly and suggested that a fact-finding panel be created by the U.N. to look into who was behind them.
“It was offensive,” Obama said in an interview with the Persian service of the BBC that was to be broadcast to the Iranian people. “It was hateful.”
“And particularly for him to make the statement here in Manhattan, just a little north of ground zero, where families lost their loved ones, people of all faiths, all ethnicities who see this as the seminal tragedy of this generation, for him to make a statement like that was inexcusable,” Obama said.
Obama said Ahmadinejad’s remarks will make the American people even more wary about dealing with his government.
In a news conference at a Manhattan hotel, Ahmadinejad shot back, saying he had not made any judgments about who was responsible for 9/11 and lashed out at the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as an overreaction to the attacks.
“I did not pass judgment, but don’t you feel that the time has come to have a fact-finding committee?” he said of his General Assembly address.
Iran, which insists it is enriching uranium only to fuel nuclear reactors to generate electricity, is under four sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions as punishment for its failure to make its nuclear ambitions transparent.
Earlier this week, the five permanent members of the Security Council – the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China – and Germany renewed their invitation for Iran to return to the table amid signs that Tehran might be willing to resume long-stalled negotiations.
Ahmadinejad said Friday that he thought Iran might be able reopen contact next month to set a framework for negotiations with the group.
But Obama seemed unimpressed with the Iranian position. He sharply criticized Iran’s leadership for hurting its people by incurring severe financial and trade sanctions when it refuses to comply.
“Right now what the Iranian government has said is, it’s more important for us to defy the international community, engage in a covert nuclear weapons program, than it is to make sure that our people are prospering,” he told the BBC.