NEW YORK – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday in an Associated Press interview that he will seek leniency for three American hikers who strayed across the Iranian border, and he urged President Barack Obama to see Iran as a potential friend.
The Iranian leader also said he expects "free and open" discussion of nuclear issues at a meeting next week with six world powers, but stressed that his country would not negotiate on its own nuclear plans.
He said the onus should be on the United States and other major nuclear powers to give up their weapons and to expand opportunities for all countries to make peaceful use of nuclear power.
The Iranian leader's remarks on those and other issues in an hour-long interview at his New York hotel appeared designed to present his country as open to a broad international dialogue and to soften Iran's image as a rogue nation bent on spreading its Islamic revolution.
He reiterated explicitly that Iran is not building nuclear weapons.
He described Iran as "an opportunity for everyone," and he pointedly said Obama — who came into office vowing to seek direct talks with Washington's longtime nemesis — should waste no time pushing for big changes in the world order and to deal with Iran as a friend rather than foe.
"I hope that Mr. Obama will move in the direction of change," Ahmadinejad said. At another point he said, "The sources of insecurity around the world need to be discussed."
The United States, Israel and the European Union fear that Iran is using its nuclear program to covertly develop nuclear weapons. But Tehran says the program serves purely civilian purposes and asserts its right to enrich uranium for use in nuclear power plants to generate electricity.
The Bush administration had refused to negotiate further with Iran until it agreed to freeze its uranium enrichment efforts, which it has refused to do.
When asked in the interview about the three American hikers, the Iranian leader said they broke the law by illegally entering Iran. Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad said he will ask the Iranian judiciary to treat the case with "maximum leniency."
Speaking on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the Iranian leader did not elaborate on what that might mean for the fate of the three Americans. Families of the imprisoned hikers have said they hope Ahmadinejad's visit to New York might yield a breakthrough in the case.
Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal and Sarah Shourd have been held for 52 days since they apparently strayed into Iran while hiking in northern Iraq's Kurdistan region in July. Their case has become the latest source of friction between the U.S. and Iran.