President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the U.S. and its allies on Wednesday of "hatching plots" to provoke ethnic tensions and destabilize Iran , as the Islamic republic braces for more confrontation with the West over its nuclear program. "They (the U.S. and its allies) must know that they will not be able to provoke divisions and differences, through desperate attempts, among the dear Iranian nation," Ahmadinejad said in a speech broadcast live on state-run television.
His call for national unity came a day after Iran closed a state-owned newspaper and detained its chief editor and cartoonist for publishing a cartoon that sparked riots by ethnic Azeris in northwestern Iran , a sign of the hard-line government's concern over any possible division amid its dispute with the United States . Ahmadinejad is taking a tough tone toward Washington at a time when U.S. officials are making new overtures to hold direct talks with Iran on stabilizing its neighbor, Iraq .
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently acknowledged Iran 's role in Iraq and U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad said the talks should take place now that Iraq has formed a government. After initially agreeing to the talks, Iran has sent mixed signals. Some Iranian officials said the formation of a new Iraqi government this months opens the way for the U.S.-Iran meeting, but Ahmadinejad in April questioned the need for any talks.
The Washington Post on Wednesday reported that Iran , through intermediaries, is asking the United States to hold direct talks over its nuclear program, the most pressing dispute between the two countries. The United States has so far rejected holding talks on that issue, instead seeking U.N. pressure on Iran . The Post article cited unnamed diplomats and unnamed U.S. officials as saying Iran was seeking nuclear talks. It also quoted Iranian analyst Saeed Leilaz saying Iran had asked intermediaries to approach the U.S. for nuclear talks.
But Leilaz told The Associated Press on Wednesday he had no inside knowledge on any Iranian efforts to hold talks. "I only gave my personal interpretation. I only said it was logical if Iran says yes to open dialogue with Washington not only about Iraq but about its nuclear program too," he said. Ahmadinejad on Wednesday fell short of saying the U.S. had planned for the contentious cartoon, but strongly implied it had a hand in the protests that followed and was seeking to destabilize Iran .
"Today, they (the U.S. ) are hatching plots. They want to provoke differences, divisions, disappointment ... to prevent the Iranian nation from achieving all of its rights," Ahmadinejad told thousands of people in Khorramshahr in southwestern Iran . On a surprise visit in this city on the border with Iraq to commemorate the anniversary of its liberation during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the president was also quick to say Iran wouldn't give up its nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad said Iran possesses the whole nuclear fuel cycle from extracting uranium ore to enriching it. "We possess the entire nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful purposes," he said. "Use of nuclear energy is a right the Iranian nation is demanding everyday and standing by it." His comment drew chants of "nuclear energy is our right" from the crowd.
Key European nations on Wednesday put finishing touches on a proposal meant to enlist the support of Russia and China for possible U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran should Tehran refuse to abandon uranium enrichment, diplomats said. The compromise which would drop the automatic threat of military action is part of a proposed basket of incentives meant to entice Iran to give up enrichment, a possible pathway to nuclear arms. It also spells out the penalties if it does not.
Iran has said it will never give up its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel. The U.S. and some of its allies have accused Iran of using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to produce nuclear weapons. Tehran has denied this, saying its nuclear program is merely to generate electricity, not bomb.
A January article in The New Yorker magazine had reported that U.S. military operatives were already working in Iran , making contacts with anti-government ethnic minorities and gathering intelligence. Defense Department officials said the article was filled with mistakes but did not deny its basic point and Iran denied any U.S. agents had entered its territory.
Iran is a patchwork of many ethnic groups, but its numerous minorities have generally been quiet in past decades with little overt show of opposition to the government. On Monday however, hundreds of Azeris marched in the northwestern city of Tabriz , protesting a slur in the cartoon run May 12 in a state-owned newspaper, Iran , that showed a cockroach speaking Azeri and suggested Azeris are stupid.
Some broke windows of the governor's office, and police had to use tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, witnesses said. Azeris, a Turkic ethnic group, are Iran 's largest minority, making up about a quarter of Iran 's 70 million people, dominated by ethnic Persians.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists voiced concern about the arrest of the newspaper's editor and cartoonist in what was the first closure of a newspaper since Ahmadinejad took office last year. "While we understand that the publication of this cartoon has offended many people, we believe there is no justification to deprive these journalists of their liberty," Ann Cooper, the committee's executive director, said in a statement, reports the AP.