Ahmadinejad Open to US Talks, Denounces Threats

At a press conference following his speech to the UN General Assembly Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he would welcome discussions with the US presidential candidates, but added that "the condition is that our meeting should be open so that all media know what happens."

Ahmadinejad’s appearance in New York provoked a series of demonstrations against Iran’s human rights record and by Jewish groups angry at his description of the Nazi Holocaust as a "myth".

In a fiery speech at the UN, he maintained his harsh tone toward Israel, but welcomed opening a dialogue with the United States, if Washington backed off from its threat of military force.

While Democrat Barack Obama has said he would focus on sanctions and direct diplomacy with Tehran, neither he nor his Republican opponent, John McCain, are willing to take the military option "off the table".

Ahmadinejad stressed that the US government unilaterally severed its relations with Iran in 1979. "We have always been in favor of relations with other countries. The US government thought by cutting ties they can punish Iran and prevent the development of out nation, but we are now stronger and more developed than the past," he said.

"Today we seek relations, but relations based on justice and mutual respect," he added.

Regarding Iran’s nuclear program and the request for additional inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ahmadinejad accused the IAEA of being a tool of the United Stated and other world powers.

"Under extreme political pressure, the agency has played into their agenda, and we need to investigate those allegations as well," he said. "Those documents presented by the US government [allegedly showing that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons] are forged paper and the forgery is poorly done – any elementary school child could figure that out."

"They [the IAEA] are asking us to prove that something does not exist, and that is not possible," he said, adding that several rounds of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran had "done nothing to the country".

He said it was ironic that while Israel and other countries openly have nuclear weapons, Iran’s "peaceful activities should be considered a threat" to world security.

In response to a question about a possible Israeli attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Ahmadinejad charged that the founding philosophy of Israel is aggression and occupation. "This regime has been created to terrify, put pressure on people and children, to deny people medicine and food, and the threats are not new, but both Zionists and their supporters are aware that they are far too weak to harm Iran."

"Today the Zionist regime has reached the end of the line," he asserted.

Ahmadinejad refused to answer a question from IPS about recent controversial remarks by Iran’s vice president that Iran is "friends of all people in the world – even Israelis."

When a reporter pointed out that some prominent Iranians, such as former President Mohammad Khatami, have criticized Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric on Israel as potentially harmful to the Palestinian cause and the quest for a two-state solution, Ahmadinejad responded that "people can say whatever they want in Iran, because of the existence of absolute freedom" of speech in his country. He also denied that any bloggers or journalists have been imprisoned for criticizing the government.

However, in its 2008 annual report, Reporters Without Borders charged that Iran "remained the Middle East’s biggest prison for journalists, with more than 50 journalists jailed in 2007."

While many have since been released, suppression of independent voices appears to continue. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says that two Kurdish journalists, Anvar Sa’di Muchashi and Massoud Kurdpour, have been detained since August.

Muchashi, 29, wrote for various local news outlets and has given interviews to Kurdish satellite channels as a journalist and an activist. Muchashi is also a law student at Tehran International University and was previously a staff writer at the now banned weekly newspaper Karaftu.

A day before his arrest, Muchashi told his colleagues that he had received a call from someone who identified himself as security personnel and told Muchashi, "You have crossed the red lines," one of them told CPJ.

Kurdpour, a freelance journalist and human rights activist, was a staff writer for the now banned weekly Didga (Views). He has regularly given interviews on Kurdish issues in Iran to international media outlets.

"The secrecy surrounding the arrests of Anvar Sa’di Muchashi and Massoud Kurdpour is disturbing," CPJ’s Executive Director Joel Simon said in a statement earlier this month. "Our colleagues are entitled to due process. We call on the Iranian authorities to either charge or release them immediately."

Human rights groups, both international and within Iran, say that a crackdown of dissidents for their peaceful beliefs and opinions has intensified in recent years. Women’s rights advocates have been beaten, harassed, persecuted, and prosecuted.

According to a briefing paper released ahead of Ahmadinejad’s visit to the UN, three Iranians with academic ties to US institutions are currently being held and interrogated.

"Arash and Kamiar Alei are world-renowned AIDS physicians who have been in arbitrary detention since Jun. 22, 2008. Mehdi Zakerian, a legal scholar who was scheduled to teach at the University of Pennsylvania this semester, was detained by security agents three weeks ago. The authorities have not provided any information about his situation," said the paper, compiled by Human Rights Watch and the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

"The most urgent in relation to human rights in Iran is repression of civil society across the board, journalists, academics and human rights defenders who have gone to prison during President Ahmadinejad’s tenure," Minky Worden, media director at Human Rights Watch, told IPS.

"[It] is a reminder to the world that there is a human rights crisis in Iran that is not diminishing – it is actually escalating," she said.

Iran is also one of the only countries to enforce the death penalty on children under the age of 18. It has executed six juvenile offenders so far in 2008, and more than 130 others have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution, according to human rights organizations.

Since Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, the total number of executions has quadrupled in Iran, rising from 86 cases in 2005 to 317 cases in 2007 – almost a 300-percent increase.

Author: Omid Memarian

Omid Memarian writes for Inter Press Service.