A Date With a Dangerous Mind
EXCLUSIVE: Face to face with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man
whose swaggeris stirring fears of warwith the U.S.
By SCOTT MACLEOD
09/18/06 "Time" -- -- - HAVANA --
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn't one
for ceremony. We are waiting in a villa outside Havana when
Ahmadinejad strides in without notice, taking even his aides by
surprise. He is wearing blue-gray trousers, black loafers and
the trademark tan jacket that even he calls his "Ahmadinejad
jacket." He mutters something to himself as he settles into an
aging leather chair with bad springs. For a moment, he seems
irked by the chair, perhaps because it makes him seem even
smaller than his 5 ft. 4 in., but soon he's smiling, prodding,
leaning forward to make his points. "We are living our own
lives," he says, when asked about his differences with the Bush
Administration. He jabs the back of my hand for emphasis. "The
U.S. government should not interfere in our affairs. They should
live their own lives."
When he made his first trip to the U.S. last year for a meeting
of the U.N. General Assembly, Ahmadinejad was still a
curiosity--a diminutive, plainly dressed man who had come out of
nowhere to win Iran's presidential election. But in New York
City this week, he won't have trouble being recognized. His
incendiary statements--he has declared the Holocaust a "myth,"
has said Israel should be "wiped away" and has called the Jewish
state "a stain of disgrace"--have made him the most polarizing
head of state in the Muslim world. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran has
built up its influence in Lebanon and Iraq and made clear its
intention to become the dominant power in the oil-rich Persian
Gulf. He has also accelerated work on Iran's civilian nuclear
program, which the U.S. believes is geared toward producing a
nuclear bomb. Though pictures of the Iranian President often
show him flashing a peace sign, his actions could well be
leading the world closer to war.
For all his bluster, Ahmadinejad remains an enigma. His powers
are limited by Iran's political structure, in which ultimate
authority over matters of state rests with the country's Supreme
Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. The regime has threatened to
retaliate against American interests "in every part of the
world" if the U.S. were ever to launch a military strike against
Iran. But Ahmadinejad has also made rhetorical gestures of
conciliation, sending an open letter to George W. Bush and
inviting the U.S. President to a televised discussion about "the
ways of solving the problems of the international community."
(Bush ruled it out last week. "I'm not going to meet with him,"
he said at a White House news conference.)
Ahmadinejad is a skilled, if slippery, debater. In his press
conferences, he has shown himself to be a natural politician,
gifted in the art of spin and misdirection. Our meeting took
place last Saturday in a villa on the outskirts of Havana, where
he was attending the confab for leaders of nonaligned nations, a
gathering that included other irritants to the West such as
Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.
Over the course of the 45-minute interview, he was serious,
smiling and cocky--evidence of a self-assurance that borders on
arrogance. His brown eyes locked onto mine when he made a point
about Iran's nuclear program. His rhetoric was measured, but he
was adamant on the issues that have made him so controversial.
He dismissed U.N. demands that Iran suspend its
uranium-enrichment program but said, "We are opposed to the
development of nuclear weapons. We think it is of no use and
that it is against the interests of nations." He waved a hand
dismissively when I couldn't grasp his logic in questioning the
Holocaust. Asked to defend his claim that the Holocaust was a
myth, he went on a rambling rant, claiming that those who try to
do "independent research" on the Holocaust have been imprisoned.
"About historical events," he says, "there are different views."
He was more generous and accommodating when it came to
discussing the U.S., saying his May letter to Bush was a genuine
effort to reach out. He spoke highly of Americans, based on his
trip to New York. "My general impression is that the people of
the United States are good people ... The people of the United
States are also seeking peace, love, friendship and justice."
Whether such talk will be enough to save the two nations from a
confrontation remains to be seen. Nor is it clear that
Ahmadinejad's own job is secure. Impatience with his failure to
fix Iran's economy is growing, and there is some speculation
that the Old Guard may try to push him out. But until then, he
seems likely to keep challenging the West, stirring things up.
He aspires to unite Muslim opinion and make Iran the dominant
player in the Middle East, restoring the country to its ancient
Ahmadinejad's handlers said our interview would last only 30
minutes, but he let it go on despite their protests. At last we
were passed a note: "The time is over and Mr. President has an
important meeting with the Cuban President. Goodbye."
Ahmadinejad bolted from the room, swapped his jacket for a suit
coat and climbed into a Mercedes. As the car pulled away, he sat
in the back with an aide, smiled one more time and threw us a
"WE DO NOT NEED ATTACKS"
On the eve of a visit to the U.S., Iranian President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad speaks to TIME's Scott MacLeod about debating
President Bush, pursuing nuclear energy and denying the
TIME: What were your impressions of New York during your visit
to the U.S. last year?
AHMADINEJAD: Unfortunately we didn't have any contact with the
people of the United States. We were not in touch with the
people. But my general impression is that the people of the
United States are good people. Everywhere in the world, people
TIME: Did you visit the site of the World Trade Center?
AHMADINEJAD: It was not necessary. It was widely covered in the
TIME: You recently invited President Bush to a televised debate.
If he were sitting where I am sitting, what would you say, man
AHMADINEJAD: The issues which are of interest to us are the
international issues and how to manage them. I gave some
recommendations to President Bush in my personal letter, and I
hope that he will take note of them. I would ask him, Are
rationalism, spirituality and humanitarianism and logic--are
they bad things for human beings? Why more conflict? Why should
we go for hostilities? Why should we develop weapons of mass
destruction? Everybody can love one another.
TIME: Do you feel any connection with President Bush, since he
is also a religious man, a strong Christian?
AHMADINEJAD: I've heard about that. But there are many things
which take place and are inconsistent with the teachings of
Jesus Christ in this world.
TIME: Why do your supporters chant "Death to America"?
AHMADINEJAD: When they chanted that slogan, it means they hate
aggression, and they hate bullying tactics, and they hate
violations of the rights of nations and discrimination. I
recommended to President Bush that he can change his behavior,
then everything will change.
TIME: How do you think the American people feel when they hear
Iranians shouting "Death to America" and the President of Iran
does not criticize this?
AHMADINEJAD: The nations do not have any problems. What is the
role of the American people in what is happening in the world?
The people of the United States are also seeking peace, love,
friendship and justice.
TIME: But if Americans shouted "Death to Iran," Iranians would
AHMADINEJAD: If the government of Iran acted in such a way, then
[the American people] have this right.
TIME: Are America and Iran fated to be in conflict?
AHMADINEJAD: No, this is not fate. And this can come to an end.
I have said we can run the world through logic. We are living
our own lives. The U.S. government should not interfere in our
affairs. They should live their own lives. They should serve the
interests of the U.S. people. They should not interfere in our
affairs. Then there would be no problems with that.
TIME: Are you ready to open direct negotiations with the U.S.?
AHMADINEJAD: We have given them a letter, a lengthy letter. We
say the U.S. Administration should change its behavior, and then
everything will be solved. It was the U.S. which broke up
relations with us. We didn't take that position. And then they
should make up for it.
TIME: Does Iran have the right to nuclear weapons?
AHMADINEJAD: We are opposed to nuclear weapons. We think it has
been developed just to kill human beings. It is not in the
service of human beings. For that reason, last year in my
address to the U.N. General Assembly, I suggested that a
committee should be set up in order to disarm all the countries
that possess nuclear weapons.
TIME: But you were attacked with weapons of mass destruction by
Iraq. You say the U.S. threatens you, and you are surrounded by
countries that have nuclear weapons.
AHMADINEJAD: Today nuclear weapons are a blunt instrument. We
don't have any problems with Pakistan or India. Actually they
are friends of Iran, and throughout history they have been
friends. The Zionist regime is not capable of using nuclear
weapons. Problems cannot be solved through bombs. Bombs are of
little use today. We need logic.
TIME: Why won't you agree to suspend enrichment of uranium as a
AHMADINEJAD: Whose confidence should be built?
TIME: The world's?
AHMADINEJAD: The world? The world? Who is the world? The United
States? The U.S. Administration is not the entire world. Europe
does not account for one-twentieth of the entire world. When I
studied the provisions of the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation
Treaty], nowhere did I see it written that in order to produce
nuclear fuel, we need to win the support or the confidence of
the United States and some European countries.
TIME: How far will Iran go in defying Western demands? Will you
wait until you are attacked and your nuclear installations are
AHMADINEJAD: Do you think the U.S. Administration would be so
TIME: You tell me.
AHMADINEJAD: I hope that is not the case. I said that we need
logic. We do not need attacks.
TIME: Are you worried about an attack?
TIME: You have been quoted as saying Israel should be wiped off
the map. Was that merely rhetoric, or do you mean it?
AHMADINEJAD: People in the world are free to think the way they
wish. We do not insist they should change their views. Our
position toward the Palestinian question is clear: we say that a
nation has been displaced from its own land. Palestinian people
are killed in their own lands, by those who are not original
inhabitants, and they have come from far areas of the world and
have occupied those homes. Our suggestion is that the 5 million
Palestinian refugees come back to their homes, and then the
entire people on those lands hold a referendum and choose their
own system of government. This is a democratic and popular way.
Do you have any other suggestions?
TIME: Do you believe the Jewish people have a right to their own
AHMADINEJAD: We do not oppose it. In any country in which the
people are ready to vote for the Jews to come to power, it is up
to them. In our country, the Jews are living and they are
represented in our Parliament. But Zionists are different from
TIME: Have you considered that Iranian Jews are hurt by your
comments denying that 6 million Jews were killed in the
AHMADINEJAD: As to the Holocaust, I just raised a few questions.
And I didn't receive any answers to my questions. I said that
during World War II, around 60 million were killed. All were
human beings and had their own dignities. Why only 6 million?
And if it had happened, then it is a historical event. Then why
do they not allow independent research?
TIME: But massive research has been done.
AHMADINEJAD: They put in prison those who try to do research.
About historical events everybody should be free to conduct
research. Let's assume that it has taken place. Where did it
take place? So what is the fault of the Palestinian people?
These questions are quite clear. We are waiting for answers.
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