Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared Tuesday that Iran's disputed nuclear program is closed as a political issue and said Tehran will ignore a U.N. Security Council demand imposed by "arrogant powers" to curb its nuclear program.
Instead, he told world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly that Iran has decided to pursue the monitoring of its nuclear program "through its appropriate legal path," the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency.
When Ahmadinejad was ushered to the podium, the U.S. delegation walked out, leaving only a low-ranking note-taker to listen to his speech, which indirectly accused the United States and Israel of major human rights violations. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said the U.S. wanted "to send him a powerful message."
The Iranian president spoke hours after French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned the assembly that allowing Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons would be an "unacceptable risk to stability in the region and in the world." In her talk, German Chancellor Angela Merkel threatened tougher sanctions against Iran.
Iran insists the program is purely peaceful, aimed solely at using nuclear reactors to generate electricity. But the United States and key European nations believe the program is a cover for an Iranian attempt to produce nuclear weapons.
Ahmadinejad has defied two Security Council resolutions demanding Iran suspend enrichment and imposing escalating sanctions on key figures and organizations involved in the nuclear program. He made clear in his speech that Iran did not intend to comply with them now.
"In the last two years, abusing the Security Council, the arrogant powers have repeatedly accused Iran and even made military threats and imposed illegal sanctions against it," he said.
"Previously, they illegally insisted on politicizing the Iranian nation's nuclear case, but today, because of the resistance of the Iranian nation, the issue is back to the agency, and I officially announce that in our opinion the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed and has turned into an ordinary agency matter," Ahmadinejad said.
Iran has decided "to pursue the issue through its appropriate legal path ... and to disregard unlawful and political impositions by the arrogant powers," he said.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei and Iranian officials agreed in July that Tehran would answer questions from agency experts by December on more than two decades of nuclear activity — most of it secret until revealed over four years ago.
This week, IAEA technical officials returned to Tehran to to start probing outstanding questions, some with possible weapons applications. But while Iran is allowing the IAEA to inspect its known nuclear facilities, it no longer allows inspectors freedom to look elsewhere for suspicious activities on short notice as it once did.
The U.S. initially opposed the plan, fearing it could draw attention away from Iran's defiance of the Security Council demand for a halt to Iranian uranium enrichment. It later endorsed the plan while emphasizing that must obey the council.
Speaking to reporters after his speech, Ahmadinejad sought to clarify Tehran's stance on the nuclear standoff, which he blamed on "certain big powers" that have sought "to turn a simple legal issue into a very loud, controversial political issue."
He said Tehran's stance is that the matter involves only legal issues for the IAEA to handle, alluding to the Iranian regime's insistence that it is following its commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to use nuclear power only for peaceful purposes.
A third Security Council resolution, with tougher sanctions, is being discussed, although there is no agreement on it. President Bush has refused to take military action off the table if Iran does not comply.
"There will not be peace in the world if the international community falters in the face of the proliferation of nuclear arms," Sarkozy said in his speech Tuesday. The Iranian crisis "will only be resolved if firmness and dialogue go hand-in-hand."
Merkel said she intends to make clear in her address to the General Assembly later Tuesday that an Iranian nuclear bomb would have devastating consequences not only for Israel and the whole of the Middle East, but for Europe and the rest of the world.
"The world should not have to prove to Iran that it is building a (nuclear) bomb, but Iran must convince the world that it doesn't want to build a nuclear bomb," she told reporters in New York.
Iran was not without allies. Nicaragua's leftist President Daniel Ortega angrily chastised the U.S. for seeking to stop other countries from enriching uranium, which is allowed under the Nonproliferation Treaty.
Ortega said the United States, as "the only country in the world to have dropped nuclear bombs on innocent people," had no right to question the right of Iran and North Korea to pursue nuclear technology for "peaceful purposes."
"And even if they want nuclear power for purposes that are not peaceful, with what right does (the U.S.) question it?" he told the world leaders.
Earlier in the assembly's opening session, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pledged to push for lasting peace in the Middle East and an end to the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region in the coming year, calling it one of the most challenging in the U.N.'s history.
Bush spoke next and announced new sanctions against Myanmar's military dictatorship, accusing it of imposing "a 19-year reign of fear" that denies basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship. But Bush barely mentioned Iran, a nation the United States accuses of pursuing nuclear weapons and helping insurgents who are killing U.S. troops in Iraq.
Amadinejad, whose speech at Columbia University on Monday provoked widespread protests, was in the General Assembly chamber for Bush's speech. A U.N. diplomat in the chamber said the Iranian president listened to the secretary-general but pulled out his earpiece before Bush started to speak.
Asked about the protests and tough questions he faced at Columbia, Ahmadinejad told a press conference late Tuesday that he didn't find it to be difficult.
"In my opinion, it wasn't hard," he said. "I speak of my opinions and say what I need to say and others speak of theirs. After all, we are patient enough to listen to what even groups that are hostile to us say. Even if it's intentional or based on misinformation, or even when it's filled with claims and allegations and even insults."
In his General Assembly speech, the Iranian leader lashed out at "certain powers" — an apparent reference to the United States and Israel — that violate human rights by setting up secret prisons, abducting people, holding trials and enacting secret punishments without any regard to due process, tapping phone conversations and intercepting people's private mail.
"They use various pretexts to occupy sovereign states and cause insecurity and division, and then use the prevailing situation as an excuse to continue their occupation," the Iranian president said.
He then described how the Palestinian and Iraqi peoples have suffered under occupying forces. Referring to the U.S. government's policy on Iraq, he said: "They even oppose the constitution, National Assembly and the government established by the vote of the people, while they do not even have the courage to declare their defeat and exit Iraq."
"In their view, human rights are tantamount to profits for their companies and friends. The rights and dignity of American people are also being sacrificed for the selfish desires of those holding power," he told the assembly.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Fox News that Ahmadinejad should not have been invited to address the General Assembly.
"Ahmadinejad is expanding a fanatic doctrine of genocide. He is developing nuclear weapons to achieve it. He is denying the Holocaust. Imagine someone who denied that slavery existed and they want to knock an African nation off the map. You would not invite them," he said.