UNITED NATIONS — In an unyielding address before the U.N. General Assembly on Saturday afternoon, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran rebuffed attempts to rein in his country's nuclear program, railing against the United States as an aggressor and restating a compromise proposal that had already been rejected.
Ahmadinejad repeatedly stressed that Iran would not relinquish its "right to pursue peaceful nuclear energy" and accused the United States of bullying others and attempting to divide the world into "light and dark countries," repeatedly clenching his fist and jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis.
American and European officials had been anxiously awaiting Ahmadinejad's add ress, hoping it would offer either a solution to end months of standoff or provide ammunition in their drive to send Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible political and economic sanctions because of Iran's attempts to hide the extent of its nuclear program. Iran, meanwhile, has maintained that it is not seeking nuclear weapons and has the right to process uranium for nuclear fuel.
Shortly after Ahmadinejad's speech, a senior Bush administration official said, with an understated air, "This doesn't help Iran's case."
Ahmadinejad used most of his 29-minute speech to inveigh against the United States and its allies, including accusing Americans of brutalizing Iraqis and Afghans and trying to impose a nuclear-energy regime in Iran that he called "apartheid."
"Every day they are threatening other nations with nuclear weapons, and they are never inspected," he said. He added that Western countries were "relying on their power and wealth to try to impose a climate of intimidation and injustice over the world," even while portraying themselves as defenders of freedom, democracy and human rights. The State Department said it was analyzing the speech Saturday night. But a senior administration official called it "a very aggressive speech that appeared to cross several EU-3 red lines," he said, referring to European negotiating points with Iran.
Only one element of what Ahmadinejad described as an eight-point plan to resolve the standoff over its nuclear program was an actual proposal. That was his offer, as he put it, "to engage in a serious partnership with private and public sectors of other countries in the implementation of uranium enrichment program in Iran."
Under that idea, Iran would pursue uranium enrichment in concert with other countries — South Africa has been mentioned — so the West could be assured that the product was for peaceful use only. When that idea was offered earlier, the United States and Europe rejected it, saying they did not trust the Iranians not to cheat. Ahmadinejad did not refer to that earlier discussion in his speech.
Ahmadinejad has kept a tough stance against attempts to limit Iranian nuclear technology. Soon after he took office in June, Iran resumed the processing of uranium, in defiance of the United Nations. During a news conference after his speech Saturday, he maintained that Iran needed nuclear power, even though it has abundant oil, because eventually "the oil is going to run out."
He spoke just 48 hours before the U.N. agency in charge of nuclear proliferation was to meet in Vienna to decide what next steps to take against Iran.
For several weeks, the United States and its European allies have been urging members of this group, the International Atomic Energy Agency, to refer Iran to the Security Council for sanctions because of its nuclear program. But as of Saturday morning, they said they did not have the votes. As a result, officials were debating whether it was wise to push a vote now.
But immediately after Ahmadinejad's address, Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French foreign minister, said, "What I heard today makes me predict that the option of reporting Iran to the Security Council remains on the agenda." France, England and Germany have been negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program.
Douste-Blazy added that he was "very concerned" that Ahmadinejad reaffirmed his country's desire to develop nuclear fuel technology "without taking into account the worries of the international community." During Ahmadinejad's address, the American delegation chairs were empty except for one person who was there to take notes. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice scheduled meetings in New York with the Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers during his talk.
More than an hour after his address, she said in a statement that she had not been able to hear it because she was in meetings, but added, "Iran's behavior in the past" has "left the world with a lack of confidence in Iran's willingness to live up to its obligations."
Just three days ago, she indicated that the United States had given up on getting a Security Council referral now.
"I think the issue of a referral is something that we'll be working for a while," she said in an interview with Fox News.
Still, President Bush continued pushing on Friday, saying, "The world will see to it that Iran goes to the U.N. Security Council if it does not live up to its agreements." Speaking to the U.N. General Assembly Saturday morning, Rice made the argument that the United Nations could look weak if it does not stand up to Iran.
"Challenges like that of Iran are fundamental tests for the United Nations," she said. "The experience of recent years has reinforced the universal truth that international institutions are only as strong, and effective, and relevant as their members choose to make them."
Before the speech, Bush administration officials appeared conflicted over how to proceed. Some were arguing that the United States should push for a vote, even with the outcome uncertain. Others were calling for a delay as they awaited Ahmadinejad's address, hoping it clarify the situation in one direction or another.
His remarks during a visit to Turkey on Thursday caught Washington's attention. There he suggested Iran might share its nuclear technology with other Muslim nations.
Ahmadinejad said "Iran is ready to transfer nuclear know-how to the Islamic countries due to their need." On Saturday, he asserted that "the quote was incomplete," but did not explain further.