Ahmadinejad back in town to rejoin the battle of public opinion

Under attack from Western governments and by the United Nations itself for his nuclear stance, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran attempted magnanimity at the UN headquarters yesterday while insisting that the US get used to the future "belonging" to his country.

Showing no sign of being cowed by the criticism, Mr Ahmadinejad instead used the platform of UN meetings in New York to claim credit for last week's release on bail of one of the three US hikers arrested in Iran over a year ago. New sanctions recently imposed by the UN on Iran in the ongoing nuclear dispute are, he added, "pathetic".

Mr Ahmadinejad began his annual Manhattan minuet of press appearances, glad-handing and interviews as a meeting of the UN's atomic watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, opened in Vienna with the usual rhetorical duelling between American and Iranian officials.

The Iranian government "took a huge humanitarian measure" in releasing the hiker, Sarah Shourd, President Ahmadinejad insisted, saying little about the two other Americans – Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer – who remain in Tehran's Evin prison. As such, he said, the US should return the favour and release "the Iranians who were illegally arrested and detained here in the US".

In an interview with Associated Press, Mr Ahmadinejad said the US "must recognise that Iran is a big power". He added: "We consider ourselves to be a human force and a cultural power and hence a friend of other nations. We have never sought to dominate others or to violate the rights of any other country. Those who insist on having hostilities with us destroy the option of friendship with us in the future, which is unfortunate. Because it is clear the future belongs to Iran."

While he flashes a broad smile in New York – with his first audience in mind the one back in Iran – few of his critics will be impressed.

Britain in common with other nations will walk out when he takes the podium for the UN General Assembly on Thursday and human rights campaigners have already been on the streets protesting his presence. Protocol chiefs at the UN will make sure that the chances of his bumping by accident into President Barack Obama are kept to a minimum.

Least credence will be given to his remarks on Iran's continuing programme of uranium enrichment which the UN sanctions aim to halt. He denied, hardly for the first time, the western charge that his country is intent on building a nuclear bomb.

"We are not afraid of nuclear weapons," he said. "The point is that if we had in fact wanted to build a nuclear bomb, we are brave enough to say that we want it. But we never do that. We are saying that the arsenal of nuclear bombs (worldwide) has to be destroyed as well."

But in Vienna, the US Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, bluntly chided Iran for failing fully to co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency and its inspectors, two of whom Iran recently ejected. The new head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, has plainly stated that Iranian compliance is falling short and he cannot say that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear arsenal.

"Iran must do what it has thus far failed to do – meet its obligations and assure the rest of the world of the peaceful nature of its intentions," Mr Chu told delegates. He added that, while the US still wants a diplomatic solution, it is clear that there is a "broad and growing international consensus that will hold Iran accountable if it continues its defiance".

But Iran's top envoy in Vienna, Ali Akbar Salehi, struck back, saying said the organisation was suffering from a "moral authority and credibility crisis". He said: "Certainly, the uncivilised double-track approach of threat and dialogue cannot be fruitful". As for the latest UN sanctions, they were "unjustified and illegal", Mr Salehi said.

Both the European Union and the US followed up the latest UN round of sanctions with additional measures aimed in particular at hurting the powerful Revolutionary Guard in Tehran.