ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – The Iranian president said Monday Iran will retaliate if the U.S. strikes the country — a tough response to recent comments by the Vice President Dick Cheney that Washington would prevent the Islamic republic from dominating the Middle East.
Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also said Iran had agreed for the benefit of the Iraqi people to meet with the U.S. in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq.
"They (the U.S.) cannot strike Iran," he said at a press conference during a two-day visit to the United Arab Emirates. "The Iranian people can protect themselves and retaliate."
The Iranian president's comments followed those on Friday by Cheney, who said from the deck of an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf that the U.S. and its allies would prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and dominating the region.
Despite the tense words, the U.S. and Iran announced Sunday that they have agreed to meet in Baghdad to discuss security and stability in Iraq.
"Both parties have confirmed the talks will take place in Baghdad in the presence of the Iraqi government," Ahmadinejad said Monday. "We decided we were ready and prepared to do this to support the Iraqi people."
The Iranian president, in a subdued mood after the previous night's raucous anti-American rally in a Dubai soccer stadium, repeated his calls for the United States to leave the Gulf region. Washington holds military bases in all Gulf countries except Saudi Arabia.
In stark contrast to Cheney's low-key visit, Ahmadinejad was greeted with fanfare by the top leaders of the Emirates, who apparently had no objection to Sunday's rally.
Ahmadinejad said relations with the Emirates had taken a "quantum leap," with the two countries agreeing to create a joint committee headed by their foreign ministers to boost cooperation in tourism, trade, energy and development.
"There's a willingness on both sides to upgrade relations," he said. "Relations between Iran and the UAE can be a model for all the countries of the region."
Ahmadinejad appeared to be pushing his agenda at a time when the U.S. administration's popularity in the region is at a low point. He said Iran is ready to band together in a Gulf-wide security alliance with Washington's traditional regional allies.
He also called for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Egypt that were broken in 1979, saying it would strengthen regional security and stability.
The U.S. presence in the Gulf, Ahmadinejad said, runs counter to the best interests of the Muslim-majority countries on both sides of the oil-rich sea. Similar pleas for a regional security alliance have come during recent visits by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and national security adviser Ali Larijani.
Ahmadinejad said the Americans had overextended their welcome in the region and were advocating tough actions that reached beyond what their Arab allies wished.
"What are these others doing in our region?" he replied when asking to comment on Cheney's remarks aboard the USS John C. Stennis on Friday. "Are they more keen with regard to the nuclear issue than everyone else in the region?"
The U.S. has accused Iran of covertly developing nuclear weapons, but Iran has denied the charge, saying its nuclear program is peaceful. Tehran has also objected to U.S. claims that Iran is supplying Iraqi Shiite militias with deadly roadside bombs that kill American troops.
Ahmadinejad said the U.S.-allied Emirates backs Iran's position that the U.S. military should leave the Gulf.
"This region won't allow other powers from thousands of miles away to threaten the region and create enmity," he said. "Our talks with our brothers in the United Arab Emirates reiterated this truth again and again."
A pair of newspaper editorials in the Dubai pro-government Gulf News backed Ahmadinejad's position. On Sunday, the paper lambasted Cheney for lumping the Gulf Arab countries into his anti-Iran rhetoric, saying he had needlessly stoked tensions with Iran.
"Such careless talk by the vice president is not only unwelcome but is likely to have created an all-inclusiveness that is not welcome to the Arab states," the paper said.
On Monday, the paper said Ahmadinejad's landmark visit had opened "a new page in relations" and backed the decision to form a bilateral commission. No Gulf leader has publicly backed Iran's call for a security alliance or for the removal of U.S. troops from the region.