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Iranian president accuses West of intimidation in U.N address

By David Ariosto, CNN

(CNN) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his nation was committed to peace and accused world powers of double standards in pursuing an arms race, as he took to the stage Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly.

His address on day two of the general debate was widely expected to prove contentious, given the Iranian leader’s history of controversial statements, but he made no mention of Israel.

At times, his remarks seemed almost conciliatory.

Speaking from the assembly’s iconic green marble podium, Ahmadinejad told delegates that Iran has a “global vision and welcomes any effort intended to provide and promote peace, stability and tranquility” in the world.

However, an “arms race and intimidation by nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction by the hegemonic powers have become prevalent,” he said, and Iran finds itself under threat from world powers seeking to impose their views.

“Continued threat by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to military action against our great nation is a clear example of this bitter reality,” he said. “A state of mistrust has cast its shadow on the international relations, while there is no trusted or just authority to help resolve world conflicts.”

It was the Iranian president’s eighth and final address to the assembly, with his final term in office coming to an end next year.

As Ahmadinejad spoke, the place set aside for the U.S. delegation was empty. The Canadian delegation also did not attend the speech, and Israel’s representatives were absent in observance of Yom Kippur.

“Over the past couple of days, we’ve seen Mr. Ahmadinejad once again use his trip to the U.N. not to address the legitimate aspirations of the Iranian people, but to instead spout paranoid theories and repulsive slurs against Israel,” said Erin Pelton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations.

Earlier this week, Ahmadinejad stoked controversy at the session when he declared that Israel has “no roots” in the Middle East.

He was widely expected to serve up a rebuttal to a series of sharp jabs from Western leaders Tuesday, who accused him of fostering instability in the region by way of Iran’s nuclear program, backing international militants and supporting embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But his tone shifted from blustery to placatory throughout the speech.

While Iranian leaders say their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and to satisfy energy needs, Western leaders believe Tehran wants to build a nuclear weapon. U.N. inspectors also have expressed doubts about the program’s aims.

Ahmadinejad told delegates that the United Nations should be restructured, noting that many pressing global issues are the result of mismanagement, and that “self-proclaimed centers of power … have entrusted themselves to the devil.”

The world is at a “historic juncture” now that Marxist systems are virtually gone and “capitalism is bogged down in a self-made quagmire,” he said, which could allow for other nations to “play a more active role” in global decision making.

Though Ahmadinejad’s speech was not as provocative as some had predicted, his presence in New York nonetheless drew demonstrations outside the United Nations, with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani among the speakers.

“I’m here to oppose Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assad,” said Ahmad Tawfik, an 18-year-old protester from Ottawa. “I lost a friend last week, and he was killed by Assad’s regime with Ahmadinejad’s weapons.”

President Barack Obama, who’s campaigning for re-election, blasted Ahmadinejad the previous day, suggesting that Iran and Syria are on the losing end of a sweeping tide of democracy in the region.

The United States “will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said Tuesday, reminding other leaders in attendance that a “nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained.”

World leaders this week have discussed a range of issues such as poverty, global warming, women’s empowerment and the prospect of renewed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. But Syria’s civil war and violence in the Middle East and North Africa are expected to continue to dominate the general debate session of this week’s assembly.

Before Ahmadinejad’s speech, Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi took the podium, reaffirming his nation’s commitment to the fight against Islamic militants. But he also offered to talk with extremist groups, including al Qaeda, provided they put down their weapons and repent.

President Mohamed Morsy of Egypt also addressed the assembly Wednesday, marking what is regarded as an important foreign policy speech for a nation still reeling from the effects of a popular revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally.

Morsy used the opportunity to draw attention to the issue of Palestinian statehood, calling for “measures to put an end to colonization, occupation, settlement and the alteration in the identity of occupied Jerusalem.”

He also sought to contextualize recent violence in the region after an anti-Islam film spawned protests and attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities across the Middle East and North Africa.

Egypt will work to strengthen “mutual understanding between Islamic countries and the rest of the world,” he said, and get rid of the “causes of misunderstanding used by fanatics on both sides to wrongly prove that differences between us are great.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron also joined a chorus of voices at the U.N. who oppose turning a “deaf ear to the voices of suffering” in Syria.

“Security Council Members have a particular responsibility to support the U.N. appeal for Syria,” said Cameron.

Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon sought to keep world attention focused on the worsening crisis in North Africa’s Sahel region, which has been plagued by a deadly mix of drought, famine and Islamic militancy.

“The Sahel is at a critical juncture,” he said Tuesday. “Political turmoil, extreme climatic conditions and fragile economies are combining to create a perfect storm of vulnerability.”

“The people and governments of the region need urgent international support,” he added.

Mali’s prime minister said Wednesday at the U.N. that his country has requested the adoption of a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military force to help retake the northern part of his country.

Following a military coup in the capital in March, Islamists seized control of roughly two-thirds of the Texas-sized nation.

Mali, seen as a stable democracy and an example for other less stable countries in the region, was thrown into chaos.

CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark, Richard Roth, Joe Vaccarello and Kiran Khalid contributed to this report.