NEW YORK (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Friday condemned as hateful and inexcusable suggestions by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the U.S. government may have been behind the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Ahmadinejad responded to the U.S. criticism of his remarks by saying that Washington and its allies “need to listen.”
In an interview with the BBC Persian news service, Obama lashed out at Ahmadinejad for the latest of what the White House called a long list of outrageous comments that would deepen Tehran’s isolation from the international community.
“It was offensive. It was hateful,” Obama said according to interview excerpts released by the White House.
“And particularly for him to make the statement here in Manhattan, just a little north of Ground Zero, where families lost their loved ones,” he said. “For him to make a statement like that was inexcusable.”
Ahmadinejad told the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday that U.S. statesmen were isolated in saying that al Qaeda militants carried out the suicide attacks that brought down New York’s World Trade Center and hit the Pentagon outside Washington and called for a U.N. investigation.
He said most Americans and others around the world believed the U.S. government orchestrated the attacks to rescue the economy and save Israel, comments that prompted the U.S. delegation, all 27 European Union member states and several other delegations to leave the assembly hall in protest.
Obama had made his decision to sit down for the interview with the BBC Persian news service before Ahmadinejad made his 9/11 comments as a way of speaking directly to the Iranian people. BBC Persian is broadcast in Farsi, the dominant language in Iran.
Ahmadinejad returned to the issue during a news conference on Friday, saying he met with four groups of U.S. citizens in New York who disagreed with the U.S. government’s explanation for 9/11. He said he was not surprised by the angry response his remarks had elicited from U.S. officials.
“The U.S. government, if it’s upset, it should be,” he said, adding that an unidentified poll showed that 80 percent of Americans found the events of September 11 to be suspicious.
“Their (U.S. and EU) tolerance seems to be low,” Ahmadinejad said. “Their nerves get disrupted too fast. They need to listen.”
He said 9/11 had caused two wars — in Afghanistan and Iraq — leading to the deaths of “hundreds of thousands.”
“Now they recently starting bombing Pakistan,” Ahmadinejad said. “What’s going on? How many terrorists are there? Is nine years or 10 years not enough time to get rid of them?”
British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Ahmadinejad’s 9/11 remarks were “bizarre, offensive and attention-grabbing pronouncements.” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also said he strongly condemned the comments.
A senior White House official told reporters the remarks were part of a pattern from Ahmadinejad, including denial of the Holocaust, that would further isolate the country and harm the interests of its people.
Several Western diplomats, however, said that “conspiracy theories” about possible U.S. government and Israeli involvement in the September 11 attacks are popular in the Middle East and Ahmadinejad may have been playing to that audience.
For more than seven years, the United States and its Western allies have been locked in a standoff with Iran over its nuclear program, which Washington believes aims to produce weapons but which Tehran says is for solely peaceful purposes.
In Obama’s speech at the United Nations on Thursday, he reiterated the U.S. position that the door to diplomacy with Iran remained open but that Tehran must fulfill international obligations over its nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad told a news conference on Friday he was ready for talks with the international community and that an Iranian official might meet next month with a representative of one of six world powers offering Iran political and economic incentives in exchange for halting uranium enrichment.
“We hope that by October we will be prepared (for talks),” he said, adding that they must take place “within the framework of justice and fairness.”
Ahmadinejad made clear that Iran would continue with its enrichment program but reiterated that Tehran might examine whether it needs to continue higher-level enrichment for a medical research reactor in Tehran if it received fuel for it.
For months, Western nations have been urging Iran to return to the negotiating table — there have been no substantive talks since late last year — but with no visible success.
One reporter asked Ahmadinejad to clarify whether or not he has said that Israel should be wiped off the map, as has been widely reported. He responded that the Palestinians should be allowed to decide for themselves what kind of state they want to live in without outside interference.
“Sixty years ago there was no occupying regime (Israel),” he said. “It was imposed on the people. Let the people decide.”
The Iranian president also criticized U.S. media, suggesting that American reporters all seemed to be under the influence of the U.S. State Department. He said one interviewer had raised his voice and insulted him.
“In the interviews I had with all the American media, all the questions were the same,” he said. “The only difference was the order they were asked ... The American media is the least trusted in the world.”
However, he thanked the people of New York, calling them kind and “very good people,” and the New York police department. He also apologized for any traffic jams he caused.
Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols, Lesley Wroughton and Patrick Worsnip in New York, and Caren Bohan and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Arshad Mohammed and Bill Trott