NEW YORK — At a key moment in the conflict over Iran's nuclear ambitions, Tehran is speaking more softly, echoing President Barack Obama's call for eliminating nuclear weapons. But it's showing no sign of slowing what the U.S. calls a clandestine march to nuclear arms.
In his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, Obama stuck to his two-pronged approach to Iran – acknowledging its right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy while warning of unspecified penalties if it veers onto the weapons path.
"We must insist that the future not belong to fear," he said.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was to speak Wednesday evening, said upon his arrival in New York on Tuesday that he hoped for better relations with Washington.
Still, Ahmadinejad insisted at that time, in an interview with The Associated Press, that Iran's own nuclear work was not up for negotiation.
The public rhetoric suggested little improvement in the long-shot outlook for a diplomatic breakthrough next week when the U.S. will, for the first time, fully participate in European-led talks with Iran.
Those talks are intended to press Iran to accept restraints on its nuclear program to avert what might otherwise develop quickly into a military confrontation with global ramifications.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was meeting Wednesday with her counterparts from Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany to prepare for the Oct. 1 meeting in Geneva. And White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the Iran nuclear problem was to be "No. 1 on our agenda" when Obama sat down Wednesday for private talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
In his speech Obama did not mention the Geneva talks, which fulfill a campaign pledge to engage adversaries. He framed the Iran issue as central to his broader push to strengthen international limits on the spread of nuclear weapons.
Obama singled both Iran and North Korea, which has made more progress than Iran in becoming a nuclear power, as countries that now are at a crossroads.
"Those nations that refuse to live up to their obligations must face consequences," Obama said.
The risk for Obama, in the case of Iran, is that the government will use the new talks to stall for time even as international patience wears thin. That is essentially what has happened with North Korea, which agreed at one stage to dismantle its nuclear weapons facilities but then balked and has since defied the will of the U.N. by conducting underground nuclear tests and test-launching missiles.
Obama came into office promising a more vigorous diplomatic effort with Iran, which also stands accused by the U.S. of supporting international terrorism, undermining Mideast peace efforts and secretly supplying arms to insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If nuclear diplomacy with Iran stalls, Obama may face the daunting challenge of getting Russia and other major powers to agree to new, tougher sanctions. Obama has not ruled out the eventual use of military force to stop Iran, but his focus now is on diplomacy.
In the meantime, Iran is expected to continue expanding its capacity for enriching uranium, the building block of a nuclear weapon. Still, Ahmadinejad said Iran has no interest in nuclear weapons and favors a push for global nuclear disarmament.
"We are not pursuing a nuclear weapons program," he said in the AP interview Tuesday night at his New York hotel.
The Iranian leader insisted that it is the United States that bears the greatest burden in nuclear disarmament. The U.S., he noted, possesses thousands of weapons, is the only country in history to have used them in war and refuses to promise never to initiate another nuclear attack.
Iran, he said, is "the wrong address" for delivering international pressure to pull back.
Obama, however, indicated that Iran needs to clarify its intentions and the nature of its nuclear work by cooperating more fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. agency that is supposed to monitor nuclear programs to ensure they are not used to make weapons.
Countries that refuse such cooperation make the rest of the world less safe, Obama said.
"In their actions to date, the governments of North Korea and Iran threaten to take us down this dangerous slope," he said.
Diplomacy remains the preferred path to changing that direction, he added.
"But if the governments of Iran and North Korea choose to ignore international standards; if they put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability and the security and opportunity of their own people; if they are oblivious to the dangers of escalating nuclear arms races in both East Asia and the Middle East – then they must be held accountable," he said.