Iranian president opens door for better US ties

NEW YORK (AP) _ Iran’s president expressed hope Wednesday that the next U.S. president will take steps to end the nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze with Washington. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking to a gathering of more than 400 university students and professors, opened the door for better ties but noted that Washington will have to take the first step. “We don’t insist on better relations, but it’s better to have better relations,” said Ahmadinejad, who is in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. Ahmadinejad sidestepped a direct question on his preference for the White House, but he urged the next U.S. president to try to “fix ties with Iran.” The meetings with students from dozens of universities around the country was intended as another outreach to the U.S. academic community after last year’s testy visit to Columbia University. The university president faced protests for hosting Ahmadinejad and then opened the gathering by saying the Iranian leader showed “signs of a petty and cruel dictator.” Ahmadinejad this time hosted the students in a New York hotel under tight security by U.S. and Iranian agents. The universities invited by Iran selected the students attending Wednesday’s event. Questions from the students ranged from oil prices to Israel to gay rights in Iran. Ahmadinejad used the session to often denounce U.S. policies, particularly in Iraq, and Washington’s pressure on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But he also offered some room for compromise with the next U.S. administration, which he urged to “fix ties with Iran.” Washington has proposed opening a U.S. interest section in Tehran and possibly expanding other cooperation. In July, Ahmadinejad said he would welcome direct talks with the U.S. if both parties are on “equal footing.” The United States cut diplomatic ties with Iran shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when militant students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and published sensitive documents they found inside documenting American intelligence-gathering in the country. Speaking to the students, Ahmadinejad was repeatedly asked about his declarations against Israel, including the pledge to ‘wipe it off the map,” and accusations that Iran seeks to deny the extent of the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad said he can “neither negate it or prove it,” but defended Iran’s right to hold conferences and academic study on the Holocaust.