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5 things we learned on second day of U.N. General Assembly

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
updated 5:39 AM EDT, Thu September 27, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Iranian president advocates equality; calls 9/11 "tragic"
  • Outside the world body, thousands protest Tehran
  • In his first-ever U.N. address, Egyptian president defends freedom of expression, to a limit

(CNN) -- Here's five things we learned Wednesday at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

1. Iranian president surprises by calling for peace and equality

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a largely conciliatory speech, one that contrasted with the harsher rhetoric he had launched against the United States and the West in general during previous addresses. He called for equality in decision-making for non-aligned countries. He also criticized the gap between rich and poor countries and the vast amounts of money spent in elections, though he didn't cite the United States. He talked for slightly more than a half hour about the need for fairness.

"If integrity and honesty had prevailed on the international relations, and all nations and governments were treated equally and justly in the global efforts to build and expand happiness for all mankind, imagine how beautiful and pleasant our lives and how lovely the history of mankind would have been," he said.

Behind the scenes with Ban Ki-moon
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem speaks during the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Monday, October 1. The event unites more than 100 heads of state and government for high-level meetings on nuclear safety, regional conflicts, health and nutrition and environment issues. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem speaks during the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Monday, October 1. The event unites more than 100 heads of state and government for high-level meetings on nuclear safety, regional conflicts, health and nutrition and environment issues.
World leaders at the U.N. General Assembly
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Photos: World leaders at the U.N. General Assembly Photos: World leaders at the U.N. General Assembly
Iran's president: The statesman?

Ahmadinejad decried the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, calling them "tragic."

But the speech wasn't without its jabs. Ahmadinejad slammed the United States for "throwing the culprit out to sea," a reference to the sea burial of Osama bin Laden, and said "an independent fact-finding team" could have tried to find out what really happened to the al Qaeda leader.

And he called the Israeli government a "fake" regime.

But the address was a galaxy away from the speeches he's given in the past, when delegates have marched out in protest. For example, he said last year that the Holocaust was an "excuse to pay ransom to Zionists."

Ahmadinejad spoke a day after U.S. President Obama warned that "time is not unlimited" to deal with Iran stepping up its nuclear program and its threats to Israel.

Also Tuesday, the Iranian navy fired four missiles into the Persian Gulf, sinking a target the size of a warship, the country's military said, according to state-run Press TV.

The U.S., Canadian and Israeli seats were empty during his speech.

Bill Clinton not persuaded by Iran on nuclear weapons

2. Outside the U.N. building, thousands protest the Iranian regime

The demonstrators gathered in a plaza near the U.N. Assembly Hall, where Ahmadinejad was delivering his speech.

"There's an incredible irony that Ahmadinejad is free to speak and say whatever he wants without fear of retribution but his people cannot," said Tom Ridge, the former homeland security secretary under President Bush.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton were among the speakers at the protest, which was organized by interest groups, including the Association of Iranian-Americans in New York and New Jersey.

Organizer Parham Malihi told CNN that the turnout was larger than he had predicted. Despite having produced thousands of flags "I'm short," he said. "The spirit of Iran is rising."

Some demonstrators painted their hands with fake blood; others carried plastic weapons to protest violence committed by the Iranian regime.

"I'm here to oppose Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assad," said Ahmad Tawfik, 18, who came from Ottawa, Canada, to participate.

3. Egypt's president says there's a limit to freedom of expression

Mohamed Morsy's speech was closely watched by leaders for indications of how the new leader might be leaning as he shapes his foreign policy.

The Islamist won the presidency this year following the 2011 ousting of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's Arab spring uprising. "Egypt is determined to regain its standing among nations," he said.

Over the past several weeks, protests have raged across the Arab world over an anti-Muslim video that was produced privately in the United States. The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed when demonstrators overtook the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Anti-American protests, fueled largely by the video, raged on the same day in Egypt.

Obama called the film "disgusting" in his address before the United Nations, but said the answer was not to ban it because free speech is protected in the United States.

But Morsy was unpersuaded. Referring to the video, Morsy spoke Wednesday about "obscenities" that "were released as part of an organized campaign against Islamic sanctities." He called that "unacceptable."

"We have a responsibility in this international gathering to study how we can protect the world from instability and hatred," he said.

"Egypt respects freedom of expression," he continued. "Freedom of expression that is not used to incite hatred against anyone. Not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture."

He stressed the importance of fighting "extremism and violence ... that deepens ignorance and disregards others."

Morsy's early overseas visits have included China and Iran, two nations with which the U.S. government has complicated relations.

4. Assange talks from Ecuadorian Embassy

The founder of WikiLeaks delivered an impassioned appeal Wednesday for the U.S. government to end its actions against him, his website and those who support it.

"It is time for the United States to cease its persecution of WikiLeaks, to cease its persecution of our people and to cease its persecution of our alleged sources," Julian Assange, speaking via satellite from London, told a packed conference room at the United Nations.

"It is time for President Obama to do the right thing and join the forces of change -- not in fine words, but in fine deeds."

Assange was speaking from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he has been holed up since June.

The event was held by the Mission of Ecuador on U.N. grounds, but was not officially sponsored by the world body.

For much of 2011 until June, Assange had been under house arrest in Britain while he filed appeals against his extradition from Britain to Sweden. Sweden has said it wants to question Assange on allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman there.

Assange has not been charged with a crime.

5. Yemen will fight, but still talk, to extremist groups

President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi said his country, long a base for al Qaeda, will continue to fight terrorists but will also talk with them. There have been violent protests in Yemen recently, as have occurred in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.

In recent months, Hadi has tried to restructure Yemeni security forces and to dismiss from their jobs those who are loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh was forced from power early this year in reaction to Arab Spring-inspired protests.

CNN's Kiran Khalid and Sonia Kennebeck contributed to this report

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