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Iran v US: A war of words, not of bombs and guns

Mark Mardell | 21:40 UK time, Friday, 24 September 2010

Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been at it again. At a news conference today he repeated his call for an investigation into the 9/11 attacks. Despite what the networks insist on broadcasting, he didn't actually say the US government was behind the murderous attacks, he said it was one of three theories and most Americans, and most people, believe it. I'm sure he was well aware most would not bother with this subtlety and today said:

Something happened and that event was the pretext for the invasion of two countries. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed as a result. Don't you think that that we need to explore the real reason for 9/11... to look at that excuse?

In his interview with the BBC Persian service today, President Barack Obama's anger seemed unfeigned. He said:

It was offensive. It was hateful. And particularly for him to make the statement here in Manhattan, just a little north of Ground Zero, where families lost their loved ones, people of all faiths, all ethnicities who see this as the seminal tragedy of this generation, for him to make a statement like that was inexcusable.

And it stands in contrast with the response of the Iranian people when 9/11 happened, when there were candlelight vigils and I think a natural sense of shared humanity and sympathy was expressed within Iran. And it just shows once again sort of the difference between how the Iranian leadership and this regime operates and how I think the vast majority of the Iranian people who are respectful and thoughtful think about these issues.

So in a sense it played into his hands, the last point his theme of the day. BBC Persian broadcasts to around 10 million people in Iran, and Mr Obama's message was directed at them, an effort to persuade that his quarrel wasn't with them but with their leaders, and in particular their president. He suggested one of the reason the west and Russia were so worried were because of odd outbursts like this.

Then my colleague Bahman Kalbasi asked him what is for many the key question.

For a lot of Iranians who are looking at how this scenario is playing out, many see similarities to the run-up to the Iraq War. You know, a succession of UN resolutions, toughened economic sanctions, on-and-off talk about war and a military strike. What do you say to those who are worried that they'll wake up to a military attack by America or Israel?

Mr Obama replied:

Well, I think what people should remember is that I don't take war lightly. I was opposed to the war in Iraq. I am somebody who's interested in resolving issues diplomatically.

He went on:

So the Iranian government itself has said 'we are not interested in nuclear weapons'. That's their public statement. If that's the case, there should be a mechanism whereby they can assure and prove to the international community, including the IAEA, that that is in fact the case. And if they take those constructive steps in serious negotiations, then not only should there not be a threat of war but there also won't be the sanctions that are currently in place.

This may not be tempting for Mr Ahmadinejad, Iran's 9/11 Truther in Chief, but some in Iran's complex democracy and ruling classes may like the thought of sanctions being lifted. Despite the harsh words and calculated insults even Mr Ahmadinejad did suggest that the European Union set up talks for next month. It is true that his remarks were as cryptic as ever and hedged with caveats. But low-level contacts between Iran and the EU were going on the whole time. The US and the world are in no mood for another war, and Mr Obama would be loathe to be the president to start one. That doesn't mean Israel will not act alone, but I suspect this will remain a war of words for some time to come.

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