By CHRISTOPHER CHESTER and MARIA SANMINIATELLI
After an hour of fielding questions about Syria, sanctions and nuclear weapons, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had enough. Now, he said, it was his turn to choose the topic _ his “new order” which will inevitably replace the current era of what he called U.S. bullying.
Continuing his hectic pace of media appearances and diplomatic meetings, Ahmadinejad presented an air of boredom when it came to the hot topic on everyone’s mind _ Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of impending war. Whether it was feigned or sincere, he said he would much rather be talking about his vision of what the next world order might be.
Conveniently, it would be an order in which the U.S. and the traditional powers play a smaller role and every country has equal standing (though the state of Israel, he often predicts, will soon become a historical footnote).
He said the world was losing patience with the current state of affairs.
The interview was held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly _ Ahmadinejad’s last as president of Iran. He was to address the assembly Wednesday morning.
He also discussed solutions for the Syrian civil war, dismissed the question of Iran’s nuclear ambition and claimed that despite Western sanctions his country is better off than it was when he took office in 2005.
Earlier Tuesday, President Barack Obama warned Iran that time is running out to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program. In a speech to the General Assembly, Obama said the United States could not tolerate an Iran with atomic weapons.
Ahmadinejad would not respond directly to the president’s remarks, saying he did not want to influence the U.S. presidential election in November.
But he argued that the international outcry over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program was just an excuse by the West to dominate his country. He claimed that the United States has never accepted Iran’s choice of government after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Ahmadinejad said he favored more dialogue, even though negotiations with world powers remain stalled after three rounds of high-level meetings since April.
He said some world leaders have suggested to him that Iran would be better off holding nuclear talks only with the United States.
Israeli leaders, however, are still openly contemplating military action again Iranian nuclear facilities, dismissing diplomacy as a dead end. Israel and many in the West suspect that Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, and cite its failure to cooperate fully with nuclear inspectors. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Ahmadinejad also proposed forming a new group of 10 or 11 countries to work to end the 18-month Syrian civil war. Representatives of nations in the Middle East and elsewhere would meet in New York “very soon,” he said.
Critics have accused Tehran of giving support to Syrian President Bashar Assad in carrying out massacres and other human rights violations in an attempt to crush the uprising against his rule. Activists say nearly 30,000 people have died.
Ahmadinejad said the so-called contact group hopes to get the Syrian government and opposition to sit across from each other.
Earlier this month, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi announced the formation of a four-member contact group with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia so far has not participated.
Ahmadinejad denied Iranian involvement in plotting attacks on Israelis abroad, despite arrests and accusations by police in various countries. He also vehemently disputed the U.S. claim that Iranian agents played a role in a foiled plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States last year.
Ahmadinejad will leave office next June after serving two four-year terms. He threw out numbers and statistics during the interview to show that Iran’s economy and the lives of average Iranians have improved under his watch. Since his 2005 election, he claimed, Iran went from being the world’s 22nd-largest economy to the 17th-largest; non-petroleum related exports increased sevenfold; and the basic production of goods has doubled. Median income increased by $4,000, he said.
Iran has called for the U.S. and its European allies to ease the sanctions that have hit its critical oil exports and left it blackballed from key international banking networks.
It was not possible to immediately verify most of Ahmadinejad’s figures and claims. The CIA’s World Factbook says Iran was the world’s 18th largest economy last year, as measured by its gross domestic product. It said Iran’s “GDP growth remains stagnant” and that the country “continues to suffer from double-digit unemployment and underemployment.”
But the Factbook credited Ahmadinejad with spearheading a law to reduce state subsidies that drained the budget and mostly benefited Iran’s upper and middle classes.
On other matters, Ahmadinejad said he had no knowledge of the whereabouts of Robert Levinson, a private investigator and former FBI agent who vanished in Iran five years ago. He said he directed Iranian intelligence services two years ago to work with their counterparts in the U.S. to locate him.
He also claimed never to have heard of Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine who is imprisoned on espionage charges in Iran. Hekmati was arrested while visiting his grandmothers in Iran in August 2011, and his family has been using Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York to plead for his release.
In spite of Ahmadinejad’s assertions on the importance of dialogue and respect for others, he has presented a hard line in many areas in this week’s media appearances.
He refuses to speak of the state of Israel by name and instead refers only to the “Zionists.” And when asked on Monday about author Salman Rushdie, he made no attempt to distance himself from recent renewed threats on the author’s life emanating from an Iranian semi-official religious foundation.
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer and Wendy Benjaminson contributed to this report.