UNITED NATIONS | American and European diplomats walked out of the room in protest Thursday as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested before the U.N. General Assembly that the U.S. government may have orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in an effort to somehow bolster Israel.
The incendiary remarks upstaged President Obama, who hours earlier touted the latest round of sanctions against the rogue nation, yet said the "door remains open to diplomacy" if Iran decides to meet its international obligations by allowing U.N. inspectors access to its nuclear facilities.
Mr. Ahmadinejad discussed the 9/11 conspiracy theory in a characteristic rambling tirade that hit the U.S. for its "occupation" of Iraq and Afghanistan, and predicted an end to the current world order.
He said one possible explanation for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is "that some segments within the U.S. government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy, and its grips on the Middle East, in order to save the Zionist regime."
The incendiary statement drew a sharp and immediate response from the Obama administration.
"Rather than representing the aspirations and good will of the Iranian people, Mr. Ahmadinejad has yet again chosen to spout vile conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic slurs that are as abhorrent and delusional as they are predictable," said Mark Kornblau, spokesman for the U.S. mission to the U.N.
Indeed, the diminutive leader has made a habit of provoking the West in his annual speech to world leaders, describing "Zionists" as "murderers" in his 2008 address, for example. His anti-Semitic comments last year prompted a similar walkout.
Fariborz Ghadar, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments are clearly outrageous, but "the question is, why is he saying it?"
"This is basically for consumption in the Middle East. It certainly doesn't play well in New York, and I don't necessarily think it plays well in Tehran," said Mr. Ghadar, drawing a distinction between the "average Iranian" and hard-liners like Mr. Ahmadinejad. "He wants to make some gestures to the West, but whenever he makes them, he gets a fair amount of pushback from the factions within conservative groups in Iran, so he then has to say all sorts of outrageous things."
In an interview with reporters earlier in the week, Mr. Ahmadinejad gave the impression that he is open to relaunching nuclear talks with the West, saying there "is a good chance" that negotiations would resume "in the near future," according to Politico.
But even before his 9/11 comments, the Obama administration greeted the statement with skepticism.
"We're looking for actions from the Iranians, and not just words about diplomacy," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, told reporters, adding that a series of international and unilateral sanctions against the regime were having a more dramatic effect than its leadership had anticipated.
In his address earlier on Thursday, Mr. Obama publicly chided Mr. Ahmadinejad's government, hailing the new round of multilateral sanctions against Iran as proof that "international law is not an empty promise."
"Iran is the only party to the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] that cannot demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program, and those actions have consequences," Mr. Obama said. "The United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy, should Iran choose to walk through it. But the Iranian government must demonstrate a clear and credible commitment and confirm to the world the peaceful intent of its nuclear program."
The president devoted much of his second annual address to the world body to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, warning that while "rejectionists on both sides" will try to derail new direct peace negotiations between the longtime foes, familiar grievances must not stand in the way of a peace agreement that would create a Palestinian state.
"The conflict between Israelis and Arabs is as old as this institution. And we can come back here, next year, as we have for the last 60, and make long speeches about it," Mr. Obama said. "We can waste more time by carrying forward an argument that will not help a single Israeli or Palestinian child achieve a better life. Or, we can say that this time will be different - that this time we will not let terror, or turbulence, or posturing, or petty politics stand in the way."
To reach an agreement, however, Mr. Obama stressed that Israel's sovereignty must not be questioned.
"It should be clear to all that efforts to chip away at Israel's legitimacy will only be met by the unshakeable opposition of the United States," he said. "And efforts to threaten or kill Israelis will do nothing to help the Palestinian people. The slaughter of innocent Israelis is not resistance, it is injustice."
Elsewhere, the president made the case for democracy around the world, saying while different countries will adopt unique forms of government, democracy remains the best way to secure human rights. He noted the global financial recession has led to anxiety, but decried crackdowns on civil society in the name of stemming the downturn.
"Some put human rights aside for the promise of short-term stability or the false notion that economic growth can come at the expense of freedom," Mr. Obama said. "Yet experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty; that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies and open governments. To put it simply, democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens. And I believe that truth will only grow stronger in a world where the borders between nations are blurred."
Outside the U.N. plaza Thursday, scores of demonstrators protested the Iranian regime and its widely suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons, also highlighting the nation's suppression of the opposition "Green" movement with pictures of beaten and dead activists.
Meanwhile, Sarah Shourd, a hiker who was imprisoned by Iranian authorities after entering the country while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border, told her story on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" while Mr. Ahmadinejad was speaking. Two American hikers remain captive in Iran.
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