Iran may be on the firing line, but President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was as calmly combative as ever Sunday, dismissing Israel’s military threats and predicting that nothing will happen in the nuclear talks until after the U.S. presidential elections.
In an interview on the eve of his visit to the United Nations, Ahmadinejad seemed unfazed by recent months of speculation about bombing strikes or by the precarious state of Tehran’s allies in Damascus. Instead, he talked often about politics — including a reference to what he saw as the war-weariness of the American public.
The hour-long conversation was a case study in the bob-and-weave style, and unrelenting self-confidence, that has made Ahmadinejad a survivor in Iranian politics and a particular nemesis for critics in the U.S., Israel and the Arab world. While he expressed a willingness to negotiate on a range of subjects, he retreated into generalities when pressed about details. His tone was calm, even in discussing a potential clash with Israel.
“We, generally speaking, do not take very seriously the issue of the Zionists and the possible dangers emanating from them,” he said early in the interview. “Of course, they would love to find a way for their own salvation by making a lot of noise and to raise stakes in order to save themselves. But I do not believe they will succeed.”
Asked if he thought Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was bluffing in his threats to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, the Iranian president said he agreed with that view and asserted that this analysis was a “common consensus.”
Ahmadinejad’s bland self-assurance is partly a matter of style, for no politician ever wants to display weakness before his adversaries. But in this third interview I’ve had with the Iranian president, I had the sense that he genuinely believes the world is going Iran’s way. He sees an America that is facing reversals across the Muslim world — in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and most recently, in dealing with the Arab uprisings. Close U.S. allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak are gone, and Ahmadinejad is still standing.
In discussing Iran’s negotiations with the international group known as the P5+1, Ahmadinejad said Iran was willing to make a deal to limit its stockpile of enriched uranium. But he implied that the Obama administration wants to slow the negotiations down until after the November election, to avoid bargaining concessions that might embarrass the president.
“We have always been ready and we are ready” to make a deal that will address the P5+1’s concerns, he said. “But experience has shown that important and key decisions are not made in the U.S. leading up to national elections.”
Ahmadinejad observed at another point in the conversation: “I do believe that some conversations and key issues must be talked about again once we come out of the other end of the political election atmosphere in the United States.”
In talking about America, Ahmadinejad several times referred to a country that, in his words, is tired of “back-breaking expenses” of foreign wars overseas and where public opinion is trending against Israel. He didn’t cite evidence for these views.
“Will the people of the U.S. accept meddling and intervention in the affairs of others?” he mused at one point, before answering his own question. “I don’t believe so. I believe the people of the U.S. are peace-loving people.”
The Iranian president said Iran is eager to help broker deals to end fighting in Syria and Afghanistan. On Syria, which has been Iran’s Arab ally, he said he supported transitional elections for a new government. Asked if President Bashar al-Assad should be a candidate, he answered this was for Syrians to decide. It was hard to read whether this represented any step away from Assad.
On Afghanistan, the Iranian leader claimed he had no knowledge of a February 2011 invitation to Tehran for U.S. special representative Marc Grossman. But he in effect renewed the offer, saying that after the U.S. elections, Iran was ready for direct discussions with the United States about how to stabilize Afghanistan.
The most intractable subject in any conversation with Ahmadinejad is Israel, and Sunday’s discussion was no different. Pressed why he continued to make comments that Israelis regarded as hate speech, he parried back with a series of questions about Israeli occupation of Arab territory. Asked to affirm Israel’s existence, he wouldn’t.
Ahmadinejad’s term as president will end next year, so in theory this is probably his last visit to New York as Iran’s leader. But as he spoke Sunday, it seemed unlikely that this veteran counter-puncher will disappear from Iranian politics, or the world stage, without a fight.
Interview with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Sept. 23, 2012, in New York.
The following transcript has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
Ignatius: I want to ask as my first question the one every citizen of the world would like to ask today: What is the chance of a war in Iran that would result from an Israeli attack on your nuclear facilities?
Ahmadinejad: “I have spoken about this topic at length, previously. We generally speaking do not take very seriously the issue of the Zionists and the possible dangers emanating from them. Of course they would love to find a way for their own salvation by making a lot of noise and to raise stakes in order to save themselves. But I do not believe they will succeed. Iran is also a very well recognized country and her defensive powers are very clear.
“What I do wish to address is this atmosphere and opportunities…to be made ready for their use and disposal. Why should the world rest upon foundations on which some are given the opportunity to continuously threaten others? And, most importantly, more than their willingness to threaten is the management that is governing the world today. Why should the world have such management…in which some are continuously given the opportunity to continuously threaten others?
“We do believe there needs to be serious reform there. Let’s assume that three to four months from now we all reach the conclusion these threats were privy of any value. If such opportunities are given, entities like them will always have opportunities to threaten the well-being and safety of others. They are seeking opportunities for their own salvation and to safeguard their own interests. That is why they are raising the stakes and making so much noise.”
Ignatius: In American poker we have a saying that a player who says he’s going all the way may be bluffing. So I have to ask you, do you think Prime Minister Netanyahu is bluffing?
Ahmadinejad: “I do believe that there is common consensus here, that they are [word unclear: cumulatively?] going this game. So I do agree with you in that point.”
Ignatius: So let me ask you about an exercise that I engaged in last week that was a war game between the U.S. and Iran at the Brookings Institution, one of our big think tanks. As I wrote on Friday, the strongest conclusion of this game was how easy it was for each side to miscalculate. One side would think it was taking a limited action in this game, but it was perceived as an attack. This tells us what we know from Clausewitz, about the ‘fog of war’ where we can’t always see. So my question for you is given this danger of miscalculation, would it make sense to have new communications channels including an “incidents at sea” agreement for the Gulf to avoid mistakes that are not intended?
Ahmadinejad: “Yes I do agree that conditions internationally are quite sensitive. Social, political and financial crises have angered the mangers [of the system]. And political instabilities have only accentuated these events. Perhaps there will be tensions anywhere around the world, including the Persian Gulf. The Persian Gulf as well all knows has a gateway called the Strait of Hormuz and we all most strive to create conditions for peaceful trade and access. We all must help and strive for this. It is true that it is a regional body of water but it plays a vital role in international commerce and trade.
“I would like to direct your attention to the root causes that created the current conditions. Why is there an atmosphere created around the world in which there is no trust? Why can the politicians not sit in a friendly, trustworthy environment, talk about the issues and resolve them? Everyone knows the current atmosphere in the Persian Gulf is a temporary one. This will pass too. But similar conditions are repeating themselves throughout the world. I do believe that those who seek to reform the conditions must seek for the root causes.
“I think everyone must settle for what is in the parameter of their own rights. No one must have an evil intention toward the territorial benefit or integrity of other nations. Of course, if we can create these conditions then conflict will no longer have any meaning….”
Ignatius: Mr. President, as you know, seeing root causes takes us time, and right now the time is short, so I want to return to my question: Right now, would it be useful to have confidence building measures such as an incidents at sea agreement in the Persian Gulf to reduce the risk of dangerous accidents?
Ahmadinejad: “I do believe that several steps must be taken simultaneously. Of course those who have the military reins of power seek to take over political conditions throughout the world. It’s been like that throughout the world. This is one of the special points about power. In many, many countries there are extremist factions that see their interest in creating tensions. I think as a first step these two groups must be reined in. Then…we will welcome any steps aimed at reducing tensions.
“But perhaps an easier way to accomplish all of this is for forces that are from outside the region to leave the Persian Gulf area. And they will also as a result sustain less expense.
“So the fundamental question becomes: Why should these back-breaking expenses be imposed upon the populations? For thousands of years the Iranians maintained the security of the Persian Gulf. Of course, with the help of all of the regional neighbors, When the stability and peace was threatened, was when Saddam Hussein started putting in play the different plans, and we all are aware who supported Saddam Hussein and who encouraged him. [meaning, the U.S.].”
Ignatius: Mr. President, can I ask you to turn to the P5+1 negotiations.
Ahmadinejad; “We are sincerely and truly ready. We have given many sound proposals as well. Fundamentally, we have no concerns about moving forward with the dialogue, we have always wanted a dialogue. We have a very clear logic: We do believe that if everyone adheres to the rule of law and everyone respects all parties, that there will be no problems.”
Ignatius: So perhaps I could ask you about some of the ways to carry out President Obama’s message to the Supreme Leader, delivered through Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, to take his fatwa forbidding nuclear weapons and find ways to demonstrate that it is being followed. In trying to see how you would have a system with that [the Iranian fatwa foreswearing nuclear weapons] as its first principle, Sayed Hosain Mousavian, a former member of the Iranian negotiating team, has suggested what he calls a “zero stockpile approach.” The idea would be that while Iran as a signatory of the NPT had a right to enrich, every time Iran reached a level of enriched uranium that met its civilian needs, that fuel would be converted into fuel plates or rods, and any excess would exported. Does that idea seem to you like a useful one for addressing these issues?”
Ahmadinejad: “Do you really believe that this is this is the root of the issue? That we have some tonnage of 3 plus percent enriched uranium? So do you really believe that this is the only problem [for] those who are putting us under a lot of pressure?”
Ignatius: No, but it’s a way to speak to the demands of the international community. In this P5+1 we have Russia, China, Germany in addition to the United States. It’s a broad group. This would be a way to speak to their concerns.
Ahmadinejad: “So in reality we do accept that this is only a pretense or an excuse. What assurances or guarantees exist that if we go through this phase there won’t be additional obstacles? We accepted this in the Tehran announcement.”
Ignatius: This was the TRR, Tehran Research Reactor?
Ahmadinejad: “Yes. But what happened? After a very short period, new resolutions were adopted against Iran. So who must be preoccupied in this scenario? Is the territorial boundary of where this is important? Or the management of this nuclear material? Shipping the material? Now our nuclear material is under the key and lock of the IAEA. Even one gram moved to the right or the left is recognized or seen. I mean, they lock it down. …”
Ignatius: As you know, the position of the UNSC and IAEA is that there are certain provisions of the IAEA that Iran had violated. To come back to the simple question, as part of an overall resolution of these issues and a complete clearing of the Iran file, including sanctions, would Iran be prepared to discuss a plan like this that I’ll call “zero stockpile” that would give assurance to the world that it doesn’t seek nuclear weapons?
Ahmadinejad: “We have set forth a multi-phased proposal to the P5+1 group that addresses and resolves all of the issues. And our goal is to go from the current conflict to conflict resolution and cooperation. This proposal has been analyzed and talked about quite a bit in depth in the technical gatherings. And we are awaiting the feedback and response of the P5+1 group. Do you really believe that there is a willingness to resolve this issue? We are having a friendly conversation.”
Ignatius: I talk often with American officials and with officials of the other P5+1 countries, and it’s my impression that if Iran were to work out the details of a proposal like this it would be of genuine interest and would be a pathway forward toward resolving this.
Ahmadinejad: “You see, we did shut down all of the nuclear installations once. But not only the wishes and limitations [of the U.S.] did not decrease, but they were multiplied. Despite all of this we’re still holding a dialogue and we have set forth all of this very sound proposals to the 5 plus 1…..”
“The Iranian leader argued that treatment of Iranian nuclear program is a “double standard.” If we eliminate double standards, we will eliminate many of these problems, he said. But in a situation where a few countries see themselves as “sole proprietors,” many of these problems will exist. He cited $80 billion in U.S. spending to renew and re-equip U.S. nuclear weapons. “Despite all of this, how is it that they feel threatened by a minute amount of 3.5 percent enriched uranium? Material which is only useful for a power plant?” He argued that military budgets should be spent for social welfare programs. “We will never the wealth of our nation for these [nuclear weapons] objectives.”
Ignatius: One more question in this nuclear area: When President Obama speaks to the UN General Assembly this week, I think it’s likely that he will repeat a policy he stated last March, which is that if P5+1 talks are not successful, the U.S. is prepared to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon—that’s Obama’s ‘red line.’ And I want to ask you how you as president of Iran react to this statement of the red line by President Obama.
Ahmadinejad: “Do you believe that he [Obama] will repeat such a policy?”
Ignatius: I haven’t seen his speech, but let’s just take the statement he made before, and not guess, and take that as a statement of policy.
Ahmadinejad: “I think we should just leave that. If he does repeat it, then our answer will be amply clear. But do you really believe the people of the United States support conflict? Will the people of the U.S. accept meddling and intervention in the affairs of others? I don’t believe so. I don’t believe so. I believe the people of the U.S. are peace-loving people. Throughout the history of the relationship no threat has existed to Iran from the people of the United States [and vice versa]. The people of Iran and the United States are friendly.
“I do believe that some conversations and key issues must be talked about again once we come out of the other end of the political election atmosphere in the United States.”
Ignatius: So you wouldn’t expect significant progress until our election is over?
Ahmadinejad: “About the nuclear issue, you mean?”
Ignatius: Yes, dialogue between our two countries, significant progress in any of these negotiations.
Ahmadinejad: “I firmly believe that the best type of government is the government that firmly pursues the wishes of her people. We have always been ready and we are ready. But experience has shown that important and key decisions are not made in the U.S. leading up to national elections. Am I right?”
Ignatius: You are correct. …So let me ask you about two issues where everyone wants to make peace and the interests of the United States and Iran might be similar. And the first is Syria. There’s a terrible war eating Syria alive, and I wonder if you, as head of your government, have any proposals that might lead to a just ceasefire. Not the status quo, but something different.
Ahmadinejad: “Our viewpoint, everyone’s viewpoint, vis a vis the internal matter of nations, is crystal clear. We do believe that free elections and self-determination is the right of all nations, and that the people must rule their own destiny. Vis a vis Syria, this is our viewpoint. During the gathering of the NAM [Non-Aligned Movement] in Tehran, I was given the mission of coming up with equitable solutions in order to decrease the status quo and the violence, try to mitigate the current circumstances and establish a contact group. I spoke to a few people, and God willing, I will pursue a few avenues during this very trip here. But I do hope that a contact group can be set up as soon as possible, so as to establish stability with a national understanding and agreement to hold elections. Whatever the people of the nation choose must rule that nation. And of course the foreign interventions and meddling must come to a stop.”
Ignatius: Would you expect that the current president, Bashar al-Assad, would be allowed to run in these elections, or would Syria make a new start, with a new government?
Ahmadinejad: “I do believe that the people must be given the right to choose. The only advice or suggestion that we have is that peace and mutual understanding must be turned into national decision making processes. I do believe that all nations can play key roles. We’re all hurt by the current conditions on the ground in Syria.”
Ignatius: Would Saudi Arabia be a good member of that contact group?
Ahmadinejad: “In my list of possible avenues to pursue, Saudi Arabia does occupy a place. And I believe it would be great, it would be truly productive, if they also participate.”
Ignatius: Let me ask you about another difficult conflict, which is Afghanistan. And as the U.S. has made clear, we would like help from all interested parties in the region in a peaceful transition for Afghanistan. I’ve written that in February 2011 your government quietly, in a meeting in Stockholm, invited Marc Grossman, the new special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who succeeded Richard Holbrooke, to come Tehran to discuss what the U.S. and Iran could do together to stabilize the situation. The U.S. didn’t accept that. But is that offer–to come to Tehran and talk about stabilization of Afghanistan–still on the table?
Ahmadinejad: Of course I have not heard such a thing. But I do firmly believe that any nation that can help stability independence and progress in Afghanistan is obliged do so, particularly the neighbors and friends of Afghanistan. We have always been ready to do so. … There are over 2.5 million Afghans in Iran. We are ready to help. And we have also been the architects of several regional gatherings. I do believe that the U.S. the viewpoints about Afghanistan are not in synch with one another. ….” He says that if the U.S. could agree on self-determination and long-term stability for Afghanistan, “This would ease the mission ahead. We can give the green light for the involvement of other entities in this region in these meetings. This problem must be resolved in the region. Other nations, if they’re willing to help, are more than welcome to do so.”
Ignatius: What I’m hearing is that perhaps after the U.S. election, if the U.S. is interested in dialogue with Iran about Afghanistan, direct discussions might be welcome.
Ahmadinejad: Yes, as I stated we have been the main architects of several regional meetings, three of which have already taken place. And we are very willing to give them green light for their involvement in these gatherings, as well. But the condition is any country’s respect for self-governance and self-rule of Afghanistan, and the independence of Afghanistan.”
Ignatius: I want to ask a question about tone, and what we call rhetoric. We have had a conversation of almost an hour, it’s been conducted on an intellectual level of clear, back and forth, and there have been none of the statements about Israel that are upsetting to Israelis. Israelis often read your words and come away thinking: This man hates our country, peace is impossible. They feel a deep sense of threat, that Iran doesn’t want to see Israel exist. So I want to ask you, is there anything you would say to Israelis or Americans that would address this issue of what we think of as hateful remarks that deny the existence of this people.
Ahmadinejad: Thank you for posing several questions in one, sir. We are friends with people from all over the world. We have no problems with any people. Wherever in the world there are innocent people with problems, we are on their side. You see that even these days there are protests in the occupied territories by Palestinians in protest against their living conditions. …held by hundreds of thousands, protesting the Zionist government. They are people as well, and they are discontented with current conditions. We do believe we must move toward a situation in which the essence and fundamentals of occupation and terrorism must be eradicated. And bullying must be eradicated. This is the fundamental position that we hold, wherever in the world it may be. Our proposal is for everyone to allow people to freely hold elections and choose their governors. It’s been 6 ½ to 7 decades during which the people of Palestine have been dislodged from their homes. And their territories are under occupation, and an occupying regime has been bullying them and forcing them into the current conditions. If such a fate would have come into the lives of ordinary Americans, what proposal would you have had for them? I am sure you would propose for their elimination of international bullying and occupation. Imagine in your mind that the occupation of Palestine has come to an end. What would there remain? So this is the essence of what we are saying.
“But there is a lot to say about the relation between the Zionist regime and the people of the United States. I don’t believe that the Americans are fundamentally in agreement with the behavior of this regime. Certainly the people of the United States are against terrorism, bullying and destruction of private property and homes in which women and children reside. I do believe that any administration in the U.S. that would hold a census of public opinion, vis-a-vis national support for this kind of behavior of the government, would receive negative feedback from the citizens.”
Ignatius: We’d have to see. But I want to make sure I understand what you are trying to say. You want to eradicate bullying. But you do not want to eradicate the state of Israel, per se. Am I understanding that correctly?
Ahmadinejad: I asked you if the occupation in the Palestinian territories comes to an end what would there remain? Is there a Zionist regime in existence without occupation?
Ignatius: Well, there’s a state that was recognized by the United Nations in 1948. Yes, that state remains. So let me ask you: Would that state remain?
Ahmadinejad: “My question sir is, if occupation comes to an end, what will remain in its place? Allow me to rephrase my question another way. If the Palestinian people are given a free right to choose and hold elections in all of their occupied territories, what would the results be? I think the answer is amply clear. Of course the prerogative to choose rests with people of Palestine. We do not seek to impose self-determination by creating conflict and war. We say for the people of Palestine to be able to vote freely. Our proposal benefits everyone, even nations that support the Zionist regime. How much longer do they have to sustain the expenses of this regime, and alongside it, in many instances give up their dignity as well? I think they should allow the people of Palestine in all the territories of Palestine to decide, and whatever they decide, that is what should be done. This doesn’t need nuclear weapons, missiles rockets or destroying people’s homes….”
Ignatius: I want to ask one last question and it may strike you as a strange one….I am going to cite something that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in his 1956 doctoral dissertation at Harvard… In this work, published as “A World Restored,” Kissinger described how the Congress of Vienna in 1815 created a new security order in Europe that included revolutionary France, and a rising Germany, along with the status-quo powers, Great Britain and Austro-Hungary. My question is, after the U.S. election, do you think Iranian officials would be interested in sitting down for that sort of broad discussion of a new architecture for security in your region that would mark a transition from your revolution to something new?
Ahmadinejad: We have always been ready. We do believe that the security of any region must be supported and implemented by the nation and peoples of those regions. If everyone comes to a mutual understanding, then the backbreaking military expenses will be reduced significantly. Everyone must provide for the security of their own region. For us, our own region, for the U.S. government, its own region. Then there will no longer be a need for the United States to have thousands of military bases and support the backbreaking expense associated with the military presence. I do believe we are in need of new viewpoint vis-à-vis the management of world affairs.
I do believe that the financial crises and the security crises around the world can be resolved with much less of an expense. But there is so much noise that some have tapped their ears so they no longer hear any feedback. The world’s problems must be resolved in tandem, in unison, not in a lonely act. These $700 million–$800 million in American military expenses can be put too much more beneficial use. Imagine if you get the aggregate of the worldwide military expenditures they would probably surpass a trillion or more dollars. If these resources were spent on social welfare and stability programs do you think poverty will still exist? I do believe the security of the world must be established and maintained by software, no longer by hardware. Because we’re dealing with human beings….
“For this specific purpose we warmly shake the hand of any collaborating partner. We do wish the leaders of the U.S. following the Islamic revolution of 1979 would have behaved in this way towards Iran. This is the expectation that the people of Iran had of the U.S. officials. The people of Iran fully expected American politicians to support a popular revolution that resulted in freedom and independence.
“We have a saying in Farsi, which goes roughly as follows: Whenever you catch the fish in the pond, it’s still fresh when it gets to the table. [Translator explains this means: “It’s never too late.”]