Ahmadinejad open to talks with the world watching

Reporting from Beirut -- Iran's hard-line president today dismissed a mid-September deadline for responding to Western offers of talks about its nuclear program, but said the Islamic Republic was ready to "begin constructive engagement" with world powers over a number of international issues.

A boastful and confident President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, answering reporters' questions at his first major press conference since the approval of his Cabinet last week, offered no new olive branches as the West prepares to up pressure on Iran over its refusal to halt sensitive aspects of its nuclear technology program, though he said Iran was open to "discussions and debates" in the presence of mass media.

He dismissed the threat of sanctions or war.

"The present approach will bring [the West] nothing," he told reporters. "Iranians have learned their lessons well on how to live through crises and go unscathed. All crises will be turned into opportunities. The Iranian nation will never be harmed under any circumstances."

The West is pressuring Iran to halt sensitive aspects of its nuclear research program, which includes the production of potentially dual-use enriched uranium that can provide fuel for a power plant or fissile material for a bomb.

Iran insists its nuclear enrichment program is meant solely for peaceful energy production and scientific advancement. Ahmadinejad insisted that Iran had resolved all questions regarding the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. "We don't consider anything such as [an Iranian] nuclear dossier," he said. "There is the dossier of a few countries that are hostile to Iran."

But the U.S., Israel and international arms control experts strongly suspect that Iran is slowly creating the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. They point to a set of documents, derided as forgeries by Tehran, that purport to show that Iran engaged in experiments consistent with a clandestine nuclear weapons program until 2003.

The Obama administration has called for direct diplomatic talks with Iran as a way of resolving the nuclear issue, and asked that Tehran respond to its offer before the U.N. General Assembly convenes in New York this month.

Ahmadinejad said he planned to attend the General Assembly to meet with American people and media, but only meet with U.S. officials publicly. "The era of secret and clandestine meetings to solve problems has ended," he said. "In the presence of world media, anything can be discussed."

Ahmadinejad, responding to questions about Iran's recent post-election unrest, acknowledged that wrongs were committed against protesters. He heaped blame on the West and his domestic political rivals for sparking unrest over widespread allegations that the election was rigged, but called for leniency toward those arrested.

Iranian analysts say authorities may decide to release hundreds of detainees still in prison as a gesture of goodwill during the holy month of Ramadan.

"Definitely those who managed and plotted these incidents, accepted the enemy's support, or even by keeping silent and showing no reaction let the enemy," he said, repeating his previous call to bring his reformist rivals to justice.


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