US and Iran talk tough at UN but try to avoid a further confrontation

Iran told the UN Security Council yesterday that the United States committed a ``barbaric crime'' in shooting down an Iranian airliner and denied US claims that the Navy warned the jetliner before the attack. In his speech, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati accused the US of a premeditated attack on the airliner with 290 people aboard.

``This was the most inhuman military attack in the history of civil aviation,'' Mr. Velayati said. ``This was a premeditated act of aggression against the integrity of Tehran ... a massacre,'' he said.

US Vice-President George Bush who spoke after Mr. Velayati, called the accident a ``terrible human tragedy'' and said he would not ``dignify with a response the charge that we deliberately destroyed Iran Air 655.''

Mr. Bush told the Security Council that Iran shares the responsibility.

In a prepared statement to be delivered to the council, Bush said Iran ``allowed a civilian aircraft loaded with passengers to proceed on a path over a warship engaged in battle. That was irresponsible and a tragic error.''

But both Iran and the US clearly want to avoid a bitter public confrontation in the Security Council, and both sides have been comparatively restrained in their statements here and elsewhere.

The US has backed off from its call for the council to impose a mandatory, global arms embargo against Iran.

In Tehran, the influential No. 2 leader, Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani, has urged moderation and restraint and opposed violent retaliation for the US attack. He previously has said Iran must stop offending the international community, end its isolation, and gain political friends as well as trading partners.

At the UN yesterday, Velayati quoted the radio transcript of recordings between Flight 655 and control towers and said it shows that, contrary to the US version, the plane never received warnings from the USS Vincennes on July 3.

``It was traveling in an established civilian air corridor and transmitting an internationally recognized signal to identify itself ... Claiming mistaken identity is absurd,'' Velayati said.

He rebutted US claims that the plane was descending in an attack mode, that it was transmitting ambiguous civilian and military signals, and that it was outside a recognized air corridor.

The Navy said the cruiser's crew mistook the A300 Airbus for a fighter jet and that the plane ignored several warnings that were radioed on civilian and military frequencies.

A US vice-president has not spoken to the council in years, and the appearance of Mr. Bush, a former UN ambassador, was considered a major gesture of hopes for better relations with Iran after nearly nine years of hostility.

Bush was US ambassador to the United Nations under former President Richard Nixon from 1971 to 1973. This is believed to be his first appearance at the UN since.

The presence of a US vice-president or any nation's No. 2 leader is highly unusual in the Security Council.

The high-profile appearance also is expected to give a boost to Bush's presidential campaign as he seeks to steal the limelight from his Democratic rival, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater denied any political motivation for the appearance by Bush.

``The vice-president does not normally appear before the Security Council and in this way we can again highlight our position,'' Fitzwater said.

``The vice-president will demonstrate to the Security Council and the world the US concern on this matter, the seriousness with which we take it and our dedication to take steps to try to end the Iran-Iraq war.''

The US already has expressed regret for the attack and promised compensation to the families of the victims, but not to the Iranian government.

But it would veto any Security Council resolution of condemnation.

Washington broke diplomatic relations with Tehran in November 1979 after Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and took Americans hostage, holding them for more than a year.

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