West Says Iran is Intimidating Nuclear Inspectors 

Wednesday, Sep 15, 2010  |  Updated 5:00 PM EDT
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Ahmadinejad: Judge Should Decide Fate of American Hikers

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told NBC News on Wednesday that he would not intervene in the court case of two Americans still held in Iran.

TEHRAN, Iran - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told NBC News on Wednesday that he would not intervene in the court case of two Americans still held in Iran, even though their companion has been released.

The two Americans will need to "prove that they didn't want to commit any offense," Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told NBC News in an exclusive interview just a day after the release of American Sarah Shourd.

Shourd was in Oman on Wednesday after spending more than 13 months in an Iranian prison, said Omani officials after the country's rulers mediated a deal for a half million dollar bail to win her release.

Wednesday in Tehran, Ahmadinejad told NBC's Andrea Mitchell that Iranians "are not happy to see other people prisoners," but that the outcome of the case of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal is in the hands of a judge. 

The three Americans were detained along Iran's border with Iraq in July 2009 and later accused of spying. The two men remain in a Tehran prison under indictment on espionage-related charges and could face trial — with proceedings for Shourd in absentia.

Their families say they were innocent hikers in the scenic mountains of Iraq's Kurdish region and if they did stray across the border into Iran, they did so unwittingly.

“I think we should not keep ourselves in the position to interfere in the work of a judge,” Ahmadinejad said. "I think we should let the judge and the courts decide about the case.”

Ahmadinejad gave the interview a week before he is scheduled to attend a meeting of the  U.N. General Assembly in New York and amid growing tensions ovedr Iran’s nuclear program.

Western powers accused Iran on Wednesday of trying to intimidate the U.N. atomic agency by barring some nuclear inspectors and the United States warned the Islamic state of possible diplomatic consequences.

Iran's envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh hit back during a tense meeting of the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, saying during a heated outburst that IAEA chief Yukiya Amano had "completely missed the facts," diplomats said.

The escalating row has further worsened ties between Iran and the IAEA and deepened concern about Iran's nuclear work, which the West suspects is aimed at developing atomic weapons.

"Relations between Iran and the IAEA are the lowest they've ever been," said one Western diplomat who attended the closed-door session. "Soltanieh was shouting," said another, adding Amano had responded calmly to the criticism against him.

In comments that angered Tehran, Amano told the board earlier this week that Iran's refusal to admit some experienced inspectors was hampering the agency's work.

Iran, which says its nuclear programme is aimed at generating electricity, has said two inspectors it banned in June had provided false information about its activities.

It says it is within its rights to refuse inspectors under its non-proliferation accord with the U.N. body and the agency has a pool of more than 150 other experts it can use. Ahmadinejad gave the interview amid heightened concern over the suspicion that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, with claims that United Nations' inspectors investigating the country's nuclear program are being blocked and also that Iran has a secret nuclear facility.

Glyn Davies, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA, told the agency's 35-nation board Wednesday that barring inspectors because "they report accurately ... is unprecedented." 

Iran's ban was a "clear effort to intimate inspectors and thereby influence the conclusions" they make, he said.

On Monday, the IAEA's director-general, Yukiya Amano, told a news conference in Vienna that the agency was assessing a claim by a dissident Iranian group that it had evidence of a new secret underground atomic site in Iran.

The group said the information came from a network of sources inside Iran affiliated with the exiled opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and the People's Mujahideen Organization of Iran (PMOI), a guerrilla movement opposed to the Islamic Republic's government. Iran has denied the report.

Israeli military strike
The United States, the European Union and the U.N. Security Council have imposed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

Israel, widely assumed to be the only Middle East country to have nuclear weapons, has grown increasingly nervous over the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, saying this would pose a threat to its existence.

Israel has hinted that it might make a pre-emptive military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities to prevent this from happening.

In 2005, Ahmadinejad infamously said Israel should be "wiped off the map," in remarks which led to international condemnation.

And Ahmadinejad has continued his strong rhetoric towards Israel.

On Sept. 3 this year, he said that the Mideast peace process was bound to fail and criticized some Muslim leaders for not providing all-out support to the Palestinians in their revolt against Israel.

"Palestine's issue cannot be resolved through talks with the enemies of the Palestinian nation. Resisting is the only way to rescue the Palestinians," Ahmadinejad told worshippers at Tehran University in a live broadcast to mark the annual Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day in the Islamic Republic.

"How can these talks succeed when the mediators [the U.S.] are those who created this conflict," he added.

'Totally unacceptable'
Last month, Israel said it was "totally unacceptable" for Iran to develop nuclear energy, after the first plant began fueling up.

However, the Obama administration assured Israel that it would take Iran at least a year to convert nuclear material into a functioning weapon, according to a report in The New York Times last month.

"We think that they have roughly a year dash time," Gary Samore, President Barack Obama's top adviser on nuclear issues, told the Times, referring to the key question of how long it would take Iran to convert existing stocks of low-enriched uranium into weapons-grade material. "A year is a very long period of time."

Israeli intelligence officials had argued that Iran could complete such a race for the bomb in months, while U.S. intelligence agencies have come to believe in the past year the timeline is longer, the newspaper said.

U.S. officials cited "evidence of continued troubles inside Iran's nuclear program" as the basis for the new assessment of how long it would take Tehran to build a nuclear weapon, the Times reported.

"Either they don't have the machines, or they have real questions about their technical competence," Samore told the newspaper.

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