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September 23rd, 2009
09:53 AM ET

Amanpour: White House ‘confused' on Iran

Program Note: Premiering Sunday, a new weekly series will get people talking. Join Christiane Amanpour for provocative analysis and global stories that matter to you. “Amanpour," Sunday 2 p.m. ET.

NEW YORK (CNN) - President Obama spoke Wednesday at the U.N. General Assembly as he tackles a range of thorny international issues with his counterparts.

Christiane Amanpour says the White House is confused about how to deal with Iran.

Christiane Amanpour says the White House is confused about how to deal with Iran.

Obama said Iran and North Korea "must be held accountable" if they continue to ignore international nuclear weapons treaties.

Iran recently reiterated its unwillingness to give up its nuclear program, which the United States and other Western nations fear is being used to develop nuclear weapons. Iran insists its program is strictly for civilian power.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said she didn't expect a direct meeting between Obama and Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at the U.N. session.

CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour says the White House is confused about how to deal with Iran. She joined Kiran Chetry and John Roberts on CNN’s “American Morning” Wednesday. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.

Kiran Chetry: Ahmadinejad spoke to reporters late last night saying he's willing to push for leniency in the case of the three American hikers detained in his country, accused of entering illegally from Iraq.

Through a translator he said, “We're not happy that this has happened, but when the law is broken, the law itself foresees a procedure that has to be carried through. What I can ask is that the judiciary expedites the process and gives it its full attention. … And to basically take a look at the case with maximum leniency.”

Chetry: Ahmadinejad is saying he would appeal to the court for maximum leniency. That's a pretty strong statement. Why is he coming out with that now?

Christiane Amanpour: Well, it is. It's conciliatory and it reminds me of what he said about Roxana Saberi all those months ago. He won't come out and say, “I'm going to get them released” but he did back then and he has just now said he will tell the judiciary to act expeditiously and with leniency. So perhaps that will mean some movement on it, as it did with Roxana Saberi.

And why is he doing it now? Because he's in the United States, obviously he's going to speak at the U.N., but beyond that, the U.S. government has decided to break with the Bush administration policy and now enter direct and bilateral talks with Iran, including being in the group of the P-5-plus-1 over the nuclear and other negotiations. So that's new. And I suppose he wants to pave some kind of different atmosphere. But it’s going to be difficult because of the tension still about that disputed election.

John Roberts: So what is the way forward for the White House? The White House has come out saying that President Obama will not directly engage Ahmadinejad during the United Nations proceedings, but they are looking for some sort of a diplomatic opening. So how do you see the way forward here?

Amanpour: Well, I think they're confused, and I think everybody at the moment, about how to deal with Iran and how to deal with the bigger issue. Because at the beginning, if you remember, President Obama and his administration were thinking about entering a big sort of global negotiation with Iran, engaging them, obviously on the nuclear issue, but in a way to end the 30 years of hostility that has been between them because of the beginning of the Islamic Revolution.

Now with the disputed election, that makes it much more difficult. It just [puts] so much pressure on the administration not to engage with the Iranian government because of this disputed election and particularly, obviously, what went on afterward, with the protests, the arrests, the allegations of torture and killings and all of that.

So this has been very difficult. They're going to see what they can do. And it looks like they want to engage and if that doesn't work, then try to pave the way for sanctions. But that's also fairly risky because the Russians have already said they're not going to go towards sanctions. So the way forward is a little unclear at the moment. But it seems like the opportunity for that attempt to enter negotiations with the view to really trying to hammer out all the issues between the two countries may have been stalled and stymied somewhat for the moment.

Roberts: Certainly Ahmadinejad is not making it easy either with what he said about the Holocaust again last week. You know, Germany threatening to walk out of his speech at the U.N. General Assembly if he mentions that today. How do you negotiate with this guy?

Amanpour: Well, he says many, many things. He keeps saying the same things. These are not new things that he keeps saying. He said this over and over again about the Holocaust. He also makes it much, much tougher when he's speaking inside Iran than when he's speaking here.

To this interview that he just did last night, he tried to sort of soften the edges of, nonetheless, what he believes, that the Holocaust was a myth and that if it did happen, then it's up to Europe to deal with it, not the Palestinians. That's his standard public rhetoric. Some people do believe that there might be walkouts in the General Assembly today. Not just because of that, but that and because of the election and the way the government handled it afterwards.


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