DUBAI - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has defended his controversial visit to Iran, saying on Friday that he had used this week's trip to push hard for human rights and transparency from Tehran over its nuclear program.

"I believe in the power of diplomacy and I believe in dialogues and I believe in engagement. This is exactly what I did during my visit to Tehran," Ban told Reuters on a stopover in Dubai before flying back to UN headquarters in New York.

While conceding he had not always been satisfied with the responses of Iranian leaders he spoke to this week, he rejected accusations by the United States and Israel that he had been playing into Tehran's hands by attending an international summit which Iran used to raise its diplomatic profile.

"I think that it should not have been controversial," he said. "As a secretary-general of the United Nations, I have a mandate to engage with all the member states of the United Nations."

Making the first visit by a UN chief to Iran since his predecessor traveled there six years ago, Ban attended the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of 120 mostly developing nations. Among these were senior ministers from Syria's embattled government who, he said, agreed to consider his request for greater access for international aid workers.

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Isolated by international economic sanctions imposed over its nuclear program, and unpopular among many states for its support of President Bashar Assad in Syria's civil war, Iran used the NAM summit to present an image of diplomatic power - to its own people, as well as the rest of the world.

Before the summit, Washington made clear that it wanted Ban to boycott the event. "Iran is going to manipulate this opportunity and the attendees to try to deflect attention from its own failings," a State Department spokeswoman said.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also urged Ban to cancel, calling his trip a "big mistake", Israeli media said. Netanyahu sees Iran, and a nuclear program which Tehran insists is for civilian use, as a threat to Israel's existence.

Iranian media omits Ban's criticism of regime

Ban appeared to go out of his way in Tehran to avoid being seen as endorsing Iranian policies. On Thursday, he discomfited his hosts by publicly denouncing as "outrageous" Iranian threats against Israel and claims that the Holocaust never took place.

Ban's criticism may have had little effect on public opinion within the country, however. Local media reported his comments selectively, focusing on references to Iran's importance in the world and generally omitting critical remarks.

However, Ban said on Friday that he had also used meetings with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to push for change in the country: "I made a very strong push on the nuclear issues and when it came to human rights issues, again I made it quite clear," he said.

Ban said he had also told Iranian leaders that they had a responsibility to do more to assure the world that their nuclear program was for solely peaceful purposes. The leaders' responses were not always satisfactory, he added.

"In some questions they were trying to explain their positions, particularly when it comes to nuclear issues," he said. "They were not giving me any concrete answers."

On human rights, Ban said he pressed Iran to permit more freedom of expression, strengthen women's rights and move toward democracy. He said he had brought up some specific human rights cases: "I expect some positive actions may be taken," Ban said without elaborating.

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