Sanctions would backfire on US, Iranian leader warns

By Farah Stockman and James F. Smith
Globe Staff / May 5, 2010

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NEW YORK — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran warned yesterday that passing tougher United Nations sanctions against his country would not only shut off all chances of diplomatic engagement between Iran and the United States, but would cripple President Obama’s hopes for success in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian territories.

“Any connections and contacts with Iran, the pathway to Iran, will be shut permanently,’’ he said in an interview with The Boston Globe. “Those who are trying to radicalize the atmosphere here fail to understand that they are speedily moving toward the cliff.’’

The 53-year-old former college lecturer arrived Monday in New York for a UN nuclear con ference that has been critical of his country’s pursuit of nuclear technology. In an hourlong interview conducted in a hotel conference room, he spoke calmly, with occasional flashes of emotion.

He cast Iran as the key to ensuring Obama’s legacy as a global agent of change and said that if the White House sides with hawks against Iran, it would find itself entangled in intractable conflicts for years.

“If he can’t resolve the impasse with Iran, do you think he can resolve the problems with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine?’’ he said.

Ahmadinejad’s remarks were made one day after he gave a blistering critique of the United States at the UN nuclear conference, prompting US and European officials to walk out.

Iran has been locked in a bitter confrontation for years with the United States and its allies over Iran’s nuclear program, but tensions have mounted in recent months, as the Obama administration and its European allies gear up for new sanctions.

The Obama administration appears to have committed to new sanctions after the collapse of a deal that would have taken nuclear material out of Iran, in exchange for fuel for its medical reactor. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday that there is no evidence Iran is serious about a deal.

“Iran will do whatever it can to divert attention away from its own record and to attempt to evade accountability,’’ Clinton said in her speech at the nuclear conference.

But Ahmadinejad, the only head of state attending the UN nuclear conference, said he still believes a compromise is possible. He said Iran is willing to put half of its enriched uranium in the custody of international inspectors as part of a phased exchange, offering a revised version of a deal Iran orally accepted, but backed away from, last year.

“It can be done in a manner that is acceptable to both parties,’’ he said, adding that a deal would “provide a field for cooperation and eliminate the clash.’’

But US officials say Iran is merely using a delaying tactic aimed at halting a new round of sanctions designed to try to push Iran to stop enriching uranium, which can be used as fuel for peaceful nuclear power or for a nuclear weapon.

Iran is a major focus at this week’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, at which officials from around the world are discussing how to ensure that no more countries develop nuclear weapons.

Yesterday, Ahmadinejad argued that the United States, not Iran, should be the focus of discussion, since it has nuclear weapons while Iran does not. But he guardedly lauded the Obama administration’s unprecedented disclosure on Monday of details on the US nuclear arsenal, saying it was “definitely a positive trend, but it is not enough.’’

Asked about the opposition movement that took to the streets last summer after his election, which many believe was rigged, Ahmadinejad said it would never topple the Islamic regime. “Iran is still standing strong, despite it all,’’ he said. “At the end of the day, people accept the government they have.’’

When pressed about the criminal sentences passed against so many opposition figures, protesters, and intellectuals, including economist Saeed Laylaz, who was sentenced to nine years in January, Ahmadinejad said, “The law applies to everyone, and it has nothing to do with the political circumstances of the country.’’

But later, he distanced himself from the crackdown, saying: “I’m in favor of protesters. I am for it. Every day, every one. But the judiciary is not under my control.’’

Ahmadinejad also said he could not do anything to gain the release of three American hikers who were taken into custody in July after straying into Iranian territory from Iraqi Kurdistan.

But later, he proposed trading the hikers for seven Iranians who he said were imprisoned illegally by the United States. He appeared to be referring to alleged weapons and nuclear smugglers.

“I think perhaps as a good gesture would be to exchange these people,’’ he said. “Let’s have a formal judicial agreement so that . . . every party can be brought to justice before the courts of their own country when cases of this nature arise.’’

Ahmadinejad portrayed himself as willing to compromise on nuclear issues, saying Iran would be willing to rejoin the strict nuclear disclosure and inspection system it opted out of in 2007, as long as the United States did so.

“We’ll sign on to it together,’’ he said of the stricter safeguard, known as the Additional Protocol. “If it is good, then let it be for both of us.’’

But the United States has already adopted its own Additional Protocol, which came into force in January 2009. It is unclear whether Ahmadinejad was unaware that the United States had implemented its protocol, or whether he was referring to the fact that the disclosure requirements are different for nuclear weapons states.

Indeed, one purpose of the protocols is to help make sure that countries without nuclear weapons don’t develop them. The US protocol allows Washington to exclude many of its military sites from inspection and disclosure requirements.

Ahmadinejad also said that he would be willing accept medical isotopes from other countries, removing the need for Iran to enrich uranium for its research reactor, but that trust had to be reestablished first between Iran and the United States. He denied that Iran had reneged on the nuclear swap deal six months ago.

Ahmadinejad said he is unconcerned about rumors that Israel could launch a military strike against his country’s nuclear facilities in 2011.

“We are not worried by them,’’ he said of the Israelis. “We are really concerned for Mr. Obama . . . He should be very careful not to get entrapped in the web laid by radicals around him.’’