Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep interviewed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his hotel in New York, Sept. 24, 2009. Ahmadinejad's remarks were delivered via translator.
STEVE INSKEEP: Since we last spoke a year ago, I had an opportunity to visit your country. I was allowed to speak to many people in a number of parts of the country and learn a great deal about Iran on issues ranging from the political situation to Iran's culture and your great poet, Ferdowsi.
Since that time early this year, a number of the people whom I spoke with who defended Iran to me — people who defended Iran and spoke up for Iran and its future — have been arrested and placed in prison by your government. I would like to know why people have been placed in prison in recent months for what appear to be political disagreements with you.
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [Ahmadinejad began by reciting a prayer in Arabic.] I would like extend my hellos to your audience and wish health and good luck for everyone from almighty God.
I really don't know who the individuals that you speak of are or where they are at the moment. I personally am against anyone being in prison or being arrested for that matter. I do hope that all prisoners are released. But anyone who goes to prison, well, of course, at the end of the day, it is necessary to find out why. No one goes to prison for no reason at all.
And in Iran, no one is in prison because of opposing Ahmadinejad. I mean, on a daily basis, there are tens of newspapers around the country that write articles against me and no one is arrested. But I'll be glad to follow through with the judicial system if you give me the names of the people you speak of.
INSKEEP: I will give you one name as an example. Bijan Khajepour is a respected intellectual and businessman in Iran. It was not clear that he played a role in the protests against you, and yet he was one of 100 people who were put on trial simultaneously earlier this summer. Many of the hundred confessed, but according to your former president Mohammad Khatami, the confessions were obtained under what he called "extraordinary conditions." Others have described torture.
AHMADINEJAD: In Iran, there is freedom and people can speak there minds. That is Mr. Khatami's opinion. But the judicial system is an independent body, and they, I'm sure, have convincing answers to give for the measures that they take. If it were the case really the way Mr. Khatami described, then he, too, should have been in prison, but then why is he not in prison?
So that means that it is not a sheer act of opposition that sends you to prison in our country. I certainly can't be the judge of individual acts; I am not a judge in any case. Those judges in Iran need to act and operate independently. And the law does foresee the necessary actions that need to be taken against those who violate it.
In the United States, there are 3.6 million prisoners from all different groups — well, there are [all] sorts of people, academics, businessmen, students, drivers, farmers, I'm sure everyone, so there must be a law that basically regulates who goes to prison in this country as well.
INSKEEP: You have said you do not wish people to go to prison and you have said that there is free speech in Iran. Will you publicly and specifically call for the release of the 100 who were convicted en-masse at the trial earlier this year? And will you publicly and specifically call for the reopening of the opposition newspapers that have been closed and Web sites that have been shut down in recent months in Iran?
AHMADINEJAD: I'm not in charge of judgments in Iran. The judicial system in Iran is an independent body of its own, and it follows the laws, and it must operate according to the law. I certainly don't want to see anyone in prison. That's why no one is persecuted simply because of speaking something against Ahmadinejad or against Ahmadinejad's policies. There are tens of newspapers and hundreds of magazines that write articles against me on a daily basis. I've never complained about them.
But there's a law that basically regulates things in Iran. I do not want to say that what actions are taken by the judges are always 100-percent correct, but for there to be order in society we have to accept the verdict of the judge. Otherwise, there will be no security. And the judges act independently. There is a law for them to decide on.
INSKEEP: Do you still believe, as you have said in the past, that foreigners are responsible for the protests against you in Iran, as well as the mistreatment and torture of prisoners being held in Iranian custody?
AHMADINEJAD: No one had made such claims. It is the behavior and the policy approaches adopted by the Westerners that [were] actually questioned. They endorsed some illegal actions inside the country.
And of course, having said that, there were measures taken inside the country that were pre-designed as well. We have really complained about the approach adopted by the British government. They took measures that violated our laws and worked against the interests of our nation. And in due course, we will basically take care of what was done there.
INSKEEP: Why have prisoners been mistreated, tortured and even killed inside Iranian jails, which is something that even some of the highest officials in Iran have acknowledged?
AHMADINEJAD: Regrettably, these things did take place, and it is indeed very regrettable. There is a strong belief that this also was a part of the scenario that was pre-designed to destruct the results of the elections. Nonetheless, I did request the judiciary system to give special attention to these particular cases, and that whomever it was that violated the law will come before the law — anyone.
INSKEEP: Are you suggesting, sir, that you have completely lost control of your own government's security forces, even within the prisons, that even in the prisons your enemies are in control and not you?
AHMADINEJAD: No, that is not what I am saying. Tell me, how many people lose their lives in prisons here in the United States on a daily basis? How many people lose their lives on the streets, killed by the police on a daily basis? If that were to happen, does that mean that the U.S. government has lost control over its forces? Let me give you another example. In a city like New York there might be, say, 10 million vehicles on the streets. If, say, 100 of them violate the traffic law, does that necessarily imply that the police here has lost its control?
Or assume two police officers basically do not show up at work, or just decide to violate some internal rules. I mean, in the end of the day Iran, too, is a large country — a very large country. And there could be a few officers here and there that violate the law. And it's the responsibility of the law to get to the bottom of it and to basically pass on due punishment.
INSKEEP: You have been quoted in the past, saying that the security forces are, quote, "free from these shameful acts." Are you now acknowledging that members of the security forces, in fact, are involved?
AHMADINEJAD: What I spoke of, and you quoted me on, talks of the inherent capabilities that I believe our security forces possess because they are entrusted with a task that has been defined for them, that they need to carry out according to the laws of the country. And in my view, if anyone violates them then they're definitively not a part of our security forces. And then they will be dealt with by our laws, and they may lose their jobs for good.
INSKEEP: Have you made any effort to look into the charges of one of the losing candidates in the official results of the presidential election, Mehdi Karroubi, who has made very specific and graphic claims — for example, that prisoners were stripped and seated face-to-face, insulted, abandoned, blindfolded in the desert? We could be considerably more graphic than this.
AHMADINEJAD: Yes, I have heard of all of these. Our judicial system actually designated a taskforce to take charge of these claims and see to it. And the taskforce held a meeting with Mr. Karroubi. They asked Mr. Karroubi to provide documentation and evidence of the claims. And based on the report that I received from the judiciary system, Mr. Karroubi actually said in response that he was angered by the demand to offer documentation. But at the end of the day, our judicial system is serious about understanding what happened.
INSKEEP: I believe his statement was it was clear to him that there was not to be a serious investigation.
AHMADINEJAD: Well, these were said later. It really doesn't matter. If there is a violation that has been carried out, the judicial system is responsible to see what it was. And anyone who violates the law at any level must be punished. Anyone. No one can support violations of the law in Iran.
INSKEEP: Mr. President, I would like to ask about Quds Day, which, we should explain for the American audience, is an annual event inside Iran in support of the Palestinian people.
In the ceremonies around that day, you made a speech in which you described the Holocaust as a, quote, "unreliable claim, a myth." Outside of that event, protesters were carrying signs according to photographs sent from Iran. Protesters were carrying signs that said, "Let go of Palestine, think of us right here."
Are you, as the protesters suggest, using strong words about the Holocaust to distract from your own political problems?
AHMADINEJAD: In Iran, there are freedoms. Hundreds of thousands of people, actually, were on the streets demonstrating in different forms on Quds Day, and they had their own opinion, and the others did, their own. And those others were a couple of thousand, as well, and they had their own opinions, as I said.
I mean, you can agree with me that democracy, in the end, means the rule of a majority, and the majority sits in power in the country. And those who are minority and have their viewpoints can basically express them freely even when they disagree with the president. And nobody bothers them.
INSKEEP: Are you trying to distract from your political problems?
AHMADINEJAD: Well, what you're saying could be applied to any situation in power. Whatever anyone says could basically be said, that is being used to distract others. You can't really prove that, I mean, it's hard.
When I travel, I'm told, well, are you traveling because you want to distract from something? Or when I try to fight corruption, they're like, are you deciding to fight corruption because you need to distract? I mean, in the end, these are baseless decisions. I mean, the statements have really no standing but can be said, nonetheless.
We're really honest with our people, and whatever we say, we do. Actually, I was one of the most serious critics of the economic situation in our country, as well as the administrative system of our country. I really did have a lot of criticisms of the way things were run. There are few presidents who are willing to criticize their own systems to the degree that I did.
I don't see ourselves different from the people or separate from them, but part of them. What the people say, I say. And what I say, the people say.
INSKEEP: Before coming to this conversation, I spoke with Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Prize winner, Holocaust survivor, and author of a book that I would recommend to you called Night, which is his description of his family's murder and his own near-death in the Holocaust.
Mr. Wiesel described you as the number one Holocaust denier in the world. Are you proud of such a distinction?
AHMADINEJAD: I have no opinion about what people and others think about me. It doesn't matter. But would you like to hear my views on the Holocaust? Are you willing to hear it?
INSKEEP: We have, in a previous interview, discussed how you feel it is being used unjustly to justify Israel, so we need not cover that ground again. But if you would like to describe to me what specifically you believe happened between 1942 and 1945, I would be interested.
AHMADINEJAD: But then 1942 to 1945 is still about the Holocaust, right? I do raise a couple of questions about the Holocaust, and you are a member of the media, and I believe that you should actually tell people what these questions are, and try to receive answers from them as well.
The first question is, is the Holocaust a historical event or not? It is a historical event. And, having said that, there are numerous historical events. So the next question is, why is it that this specific event has become so prominent?
Normally, ordinary people and historians pay attention to historical events. Why are politicians giving so much attention to this particular event? Why are they so biased about it? Does this event effect what is happening on the ground this day, now?
What we say is that genocide is the result of racial discrimination. Sometimes we look at history to learn the lessons of history.
INSKEEP: Are you acknowledging that millions of people were killed? Millions of Jews, specifically, were killed during World War II?
AHMADINEJAD: If you bear with me so that I can complete my statements, you will receive your answer. I'm asking, and I'm asking a number of serious questions. And I'm not addressing these questions to you, but to a wider audience — everyone — anyone who cares about the fate of humanity; who care about human beings and the rights of people. These are serious questions. If we are looking at history with the aim to learn — derive lessons from it, then what this indicates is that in the future, we should not carry out the same mistakes that were done in the past.
While I personally was not alive 60 years ago, I happen to be alive now, and I can see that genocide is happening now under the pretext of an event that happened 60 years ago. So the fundamental question I raise here is that, if this event happened, where did it happen? As a form of an objection question, who was it carried by? Why should the Palestinian people make up for it?
INSKEEP: You just went back to, if this event happened. If you'll forgive me, because time is short, we wish to go on, but do you acknowledge that it happened? Do you now find it a reliable claim?
AHMADINEJAD: I'm not a historian. Most certainly, I've read a lot of books about this issue, and that is why I have questions about it. My questions are very clear ones. We should allow researchers to examine all sorts of questions because it's quite clear that when they do, they will reach different conclusions.
Why have we shut off all forms of research that are impartial on the subject of the Holocaust? It seems that even if a historian reaches a result that is other than what has been said by, say, European historians, they could even end up in prison for it. A couple of academics in Europe were actually prosecuted because of it. These are famous historians who carried out some historical research and arrived at conclusions other than what was said by the officials and by the, you know, official tenets.
INSKEEP: These are not official channels. These are thousands of survivors who witnessed the deaths of their families.
AHMADINEJAD: Well, these are claims. Do you expect me to endorse these claims on a one-sided manner? I do not wish to pass a judgment; I'm just saying we must allow historians to carry out research on it. Why should everyone be forced to accept just the opinion of a few on a historical event? I mean, this does violate the freedom of opinion.
INSKEEP: It is my hope that we have time to go into a couple of other areas here. We will move on. I'd like to ask, next, if I might, because time is limited, your time is limited, about the meetings that are expected to begin in October involving Iran, the United States and other powers.
You have already made some statements here in New York City regarding what Iran may offer, having to do with offering meetings with scientists and requesting that the United States sell enriched uranium to Iran for medical purposes. You went on to say in an interview, "Iran, in return, will offer solutions to the changes that are required." What are the solutions of which you speak?
AHMADINEJAD: Everything you said was correct except this last part. When did I say — what changes, in what regard? We want the uranium and we are willing to purchase it. This is a good way to have exchanges.
INSKEEP: The Washington Post quoted you as saying, quote, "Iran, in return, will offer solutions to the changes that are required."
AHMADINEJAD: No, I said it would be a good start. Our issue is not — our problems are not nuclear problems. We have a sort of deep reservations in the kind of outlook that some Western politicians have with respect to our country — the same things that Mr. Obama was speaking of yesterday. He actually endorsed what the Iranian people have been saying for the past 30 years and what I'm saying in the United Nations for the past 5 years.
I'm saying that there are some powers that see themselves superior to others, that do not respect other people or recognize the rights of other people, that do not see multilateral cooperation and intervene in the affairs of other people. These are things that I've been saying for years and that were said yesterday, as well, by Mr. Obama.
He said yesterday that previous U.S. administrations acted unilaterally, that they intervened in the affairs of other countries, they wished to enforce their will on others, and we were saying the same thing. He said the U.N. system is unfair and must change. I'm saying the same thing. And we will assist in making these things happen.
INSKEEP: I would like to ask a final question that comes from my visit to your country earlier this year. I was, personally, welcomed as an American, but of course, the chant, or the phrase, "death to America" remains very common at political rallies — conservative political rallies — at Friday prayers and on billboards and signs across Tehran and other parts of Iran.
What I would sincerely like to know from you, as Iran contemplates talks, and perhaps a different relationship with the United States, is, do you believe that Iran's revolutionary government can survive in power without the United States as its constant enemy?
AHMADINEJAD: Well, the primary slogan of our revolution is "friendship with other nations." We believe that friendship and love have more permanency than enmity. And we must all endeavor to replace those hostilities with friendship and with compassion. The Islamic Revolution is presenting the depth of the compassion that flows within our country.
The fact that we've said that we're always prepared for negotiations and talks demonstrates that we always give a preference to talks. Now, if you see these slogans in Iran and in Tehran, you have to ask yourselves what policies the U.S. administration has had that has ended in those slogans — the kind of policies and behavior that Mr. Obama touched on yesterday and said that he aims to change as well.
Let me give you one small example: Let me ask you, if the government of Iran had supplied a government like Saddam Hussein with all the state-of-the-art equipment that it could to allow it to target the United States with missiles, with chemical weapons, and to support Saddam no matter how many international law rules he violated, exactly what feelings would the American people have about the Iranians right now? That's the same sentiments that our people have. And this was just one example; we have tens of them. So we hope that this really does change.
INSKEEP: Granting what you say — granting the claims that you make and the history that you cite, can your government survive without a constant enemy to rally the people against?
AHMADINEJAD: No, we don't have this — share this opinion with you because we believe it's really a material-based position. The reason why we can stay is because of cultural reasons and because of our belief system — the same factors that have basically allowed the Iranian nation to withstand all forms of challenges for centuries — for thousands of years, in fact.
And the same, same factors are present today. And these are the same factors that have resulted in the Islamic Revolution, and the Islamic Revolution will have more permanence in friendships than in hostilities. That's why we support friendships.
INSKEEP: Mr. President, thank you for sitting for these questions.
AHMADINEJAD: Will you allow me to end with one sentence?
AHMADINEJAD: You're a very good host and your radio program is a very good one. And you have a wide audience. So let us help each other to resolve the main problems in the world. And one of these is, at the end of the day, the Palestinian question. So please do share the questions I raise with your audience.
Let them give you some answers about what they think. And perhaps, we can find a solution to the problem. Just the same questions I raised in the earlier questions you had — that we discussed in this interview. I hope that you, your audience and all nations are healthy and always successful. I wish you every success.
INSKEEP: Thank you.