WASHINGTON – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in New York to protests Sunday and said in a television interview that Iran was neither building a nuclear bomb nor headed to war with the United States.
The president's motorcade pulled up to the midtown hotel where he will be staying while he appears at a series of events including the U.N. General Assembly and a forum at Columbia University, where about 40 elected officials and civic leaders decried his visit.
Ahmadinejad's public-relations push appears aimed at presenting his views directly to a U.S. audience amid rising strains and talk of war between the two nations.
Tensions are high between Washington and Tehran over U.S. accusations that Iran is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons, as well as helping Shiite militias in Iraq that target U.S. troops — claims Iran denies.
"Well, you have to appreciate we don't need a nuclear bomb. We don't need that. What need do we have for a bomb?" Ahmadinejad said in the "60 Minutes" interview taped in Iran on Thursday. "In political relations right now, the nuclear bomb is of no use. If it was useful it would have prevented the downfall of the Soviet Union."
He also said that: "It's wrong to think that Iran and the U.S. are walking toward war. Who says so? Why should we go to war? There is no war in the offing."
Before leaving Iran, Ahmadinejad said the American people have been denied "correct information," and his visit will give them a chance to hear a different voice, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Washington has said it is addressing the Iran situation diplomatically, rather than militarily, but U.S. officials also say that all options are open. The commander of the U.S. military forces in the Middle East said he did not believe tensions will lead to war.
"This constant drum beat of conflict is what strikes me, which is not helpful and not useful," Adm. William Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television, which made a partial transcript available Sunday.
Ahmadinejad's scheduled address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday will be his third time attending the New York meeting in three years.
But his request to lay a wreath at ground zero was denied by city officials and condemned by politicians who said a visit to the site of the 2001 terror attacks would violate sacred ground.
Police cited construction and security concerns in denying Ahmadinejad's request. Ahmadinejad told 60 Minutes he would not press the issue but expressed disbelief that the visit would offend Americans.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, hundreds of young Iranians held a series of candlelight vigils in Tehran.
"Usually you go to these sites to pay your respects. And also to perhaps air your views about the root causes of such incidents," Ahmadinejad told the network.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini also appeared dismayed that the request was rejected.
"What kind of damage will the U.S. face (by Ahmadinejad visiting the site)?" Hosseini said at his weekly press conference Sunday.
Columbia canceled a planned visit by the Iranian president last year, also citing security and logistical reasons.
University President Lee Bollinger has resisted requests to cancel Ahmadinejad's speech this year but promised to introduce the talk himself with a series of tough questions on topics including the Iranian leader's views on the Holocaust, his call for the destruction of the state of Israel and his government's alleged support of terrorism.
Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust "a myth" and called for Israel to be "wiped off the map."
At the protests, New York state Assemblyman Dov Hikind said Ahmadinejad "should be arrested when he comes to Columbia University, not invited to speak for God's sake."
Ahmadinejad's visit to New York is also being debated back home. Some in Iran think his trip is a publicity stunt that hurts Iran's image in the world.
Political analyst Iraj Jamshidi said Ahmadinejad looks at the General Assembly as a publicity forum simply to surprise world leaders with his harsh rhetoric.
"The world has not welcomed Ahmadinejad's hardline approach. His previous address to the assembly didn't resolve any of Iran's foreign policy issues. And no one expects anything better this time," he said.
But conservative lawmaker Alaeddin Boroujerdi said it was a good chance for Iran to air its position.
"This trip gives the president a good chance to meet world leaders and inform them of Iran's rightful position," IRNA quoted Boroujerdi as saying.