Tehran, Iran — Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday challenged President Bush to a televised debate, a proposal the White House immediately dismissed as a "diversion."
The challenge came during a freewheeling, 2 1/2-hour news conference and only two days before a U.N. Security Council ultimatum demanding Iran roll back its suspect nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad said no one can prevent Iran from pursuing what he called a peaceful nuclear program - not even U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was expected to visit here Saturday.
"Mr. Annan, too, has to move within the framework of international regulations. No one has a special right or advantage," he said.
The U.N. Security Council has set Thursday as a deadline for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment - a process that can produce either fuel for a reactor or material for weapons. Iran has refused any immediate suspension, calling the deadline illegal, and instead this week offered a counterproposal that the United States and some European nations said fell short.
Ahmadinejad's latest show of defiance seemed to solidify the country's determination to snub the Security Council, following a string of war games and uncompromising public statements this month on the nuclear standoff. But whether the U.S. can muster enough support on the 15-nation council to impose economic or political sanctions remains in question.
In his criticism of the Security Council, Ahmadinejad singled out two of its permanent members with veto power - the United States and Britain - for what he called their failure to listen to the needs of other countries.
"The U.S. and Britain are the source of many tensions," he said. "At the Security Council, where they have to protect security, they enjoy the veto right. If anybody confronts them, there is no place to take complaints to."
"This (veto right) is the source of problems of the world," he said. "It is an insult to the dignity, independence, freedom and sovereignty of nations."
In his challenge to Bush, Ahmadinejad said the debate should focus on "world issues and the ways of solving the problems of the international community."
He did not rule out the possibility of direct diplomatic talks with the United States, saying it could happen if unspecified conditions were met. But he criticized the United States for "living in the dream of getting the Iranian nation back to 30 years ago," before the Islamic revolution.
Earlier this year, Ahmadinejad wrote a letter to Bush portraying the world as filled with an "ever-increasing global hatred of the American government." Washington promptly dismissed the letter as irrelevant and not addressing the key issue of Iran's disputed nuclear program.
The Bush administration had a similar reaction Tuesday to the debate idea. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said it was "just a diversion from the legitimate concerns that the international community, not just the U.S., has about Iran's behavior, from support for terrorism to pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability."