Inskeep Discusses Ahmadinejad Interview

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Diplomats from many nations walked out Wednesday when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his speech to the U.N. General Assembly. On more than one occasion, Ahmadinejad has questioned whether the Holocaust happened. NPR's Steve Inskeep spoke to the Iranian president. Inskeep discusses the interview.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

For just a moment today, the president of Iran seemed to admit the existence of the Holocaust. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York, where many diplomats walked out of his speech at the United Nations. That's partly because of repression after Iran's disputed election, but it was also because Ahmadinejad has repeatedly questioned the genocide of millions of Jews during World War II. Last week in Iran, he called the Holocaust a myth. Today, he sat down with NPR's Steve Inskeep, who is with us from New York now. So Steve, what happened? Does the president of Iran just not think it's a myth anymore - what did he say?

STEVE INSKEEP: Well, he certainly didn't recant anything he'd said before, but he continued this constant shifting of terms that he's employed for years on this issue, using different words depending on his audience - or sometimes, it seems, the time of day. What we're going to hear is a classic example. We asked about this now, since Ahmadinejad did deny the Holocaust just the other day. And some analysts were wondering why he brought up the subject again just now, amid widespread protest at home. Let's listen.

Are you trying to distract from your political problems?

President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Through Translator) Whatever anyone says could basically be said that - is being used to distract others. And you can't really prove that. I mean, it's hard.

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?

Pres. AHMADINEJAD: (Through Translator) 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: If you would like to describe to me what specifically you believe happened between 1942 and 1945, I would be interested.

Pres. AHMADINEJAD: (Through Translator) The first question is, is the Holocaust an historical event or not? It is a historical event. So the next question is, why is it that this specific event has become so prominent?

INSKEEP: Are you acknowledging that millions of people were killed, millions of Jews, specifically…

Pres. AHMADINEJAD: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: …were killed during World War II?

Pres. AHMADINEJAD: (Through Translator) Well, 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? A couple of academics in Europe were actually prosecuted because of it and arrived at conclusions other than what was said by the officials and by the, you know, official channels…

INSKEEP: These are not official channels. These are thousands of survivors who witnessed the deaths of their family.

Pres. AHMADINEJAD: (Through Translator) Well, these are claims.

BRAND: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking through an interpreter in New York today with NPR's Steve Inskeep, who is here now. And Steve, it sounds like he's just taken every possible position. First, he says it's a myth, the Holocaust, then an historical event and finally, he sounds very vague - who knows about these claims.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And as he himself points out, we can't prove what he's doing here, but he is playing to an Iranian audience at the same time as he's playing to an Arab audience and a Western audience, and it may get hard to keep his story straight, Madeleine.

BRAND: Now, this is the second time that you have interviewed him. You interviewed him a year ago, when he was in New York.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm, that's true.

BRAND: And what was it like, meeting him again?

INSKEEP: Well, I had learned more since then because I'd been to Iran since then. And we're going to talk more about that tomorrow on MORNING EDITION because in February, I was in Iran. I spoke with many people. I learned a lot about the country. And some of the people who are most informative to me then have been arrested since and thrown in prison. And so I asked the president about that.

BRAND: And we look forward to hearing that tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. NPR's Steve Inskeep, thank you.

INSKEEP: You're welcome.

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Ahmadinejad: Holocaust 'Opinion Of Just A Few'

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad i

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says in an interview with NPR that the Holocaust is a "historical event" and that Iranians are free to criticize the government. He also addresses questions about human rights and nuclear aspirations in his country, and praises President Obama's break with policies of previous U.S. administrations. Henny Ray Abrams/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Henny Ray Abrams/AP
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says in an interview with NPR that the Holocaust is a "historical event" and that Iranians are free to criticize the government. He also addresses questions about human rights and nuclear aspirations in his country, and praises President Obama's break with policies of previous U.S. administrations.

Henny Ray Abrams/AP

Under fire for his repeated denials of the Holocaust, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the deaths of millions of Jews during World War II a "historical event" during an interview with NPR's Morning Edition to air Friday, but he quickly dismissed the accounts of Holocaust survivors as "claims."

"Why should everyone be forced to accept the opinion of just a few on a historic event?" he asked host Steve Inskeep.

Ahmadinejad stirred up controversy again last week by using a national televised speech in Iran to call the Holocaust a "lie and a mythical claim."

He told Inskeep: "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."

From Morning Edition

In the interview, he complained that the event is given too much prominence, particularly by many politicians who use the Holocaust to justify actions that hurt Palestinians.

"I can see that genocide is happening now under the pretext of an event that happened 60 years ago," he said, speaking through an interpreter. "Why should the Palestinian people make up for it?"

The Holocaust discussion was one portion of a wide-ranging interview, conducted on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Ahmadinejad also discussed the fate of demonstrators in Iran who have been protesting the recent election, praised President Obama for what Ahmadinejad views as criticism of previous U.S. administrations, and addressed his country's nuclear program.

Recent Post-Election Protests

Asked about the many democracy protesters who remain jailed after Iranian security forces violently broke up demonstrations following the country's election in June, Ahmadinejad insisted that Iranians were free to criticize their government.

From 'All Things Considered'

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"In Iran, no one is in prison because of opposing Ahmadinejad," he said. "In Iran, there is freedom and people can speak their minds."

Thousands of people were detained by Iranian security forces in the wake of the dramatic June protests, in which dozens of protesters were also killed. Many of the jailed demonstrators were released, with officials saying that fewer than 200 remain in custody.

During a lengthy exchange, the Iranian leader also confirmed widespread allegations that some prisoners were tortured in custody, calling it "regrettable."

He suggested that foreign countries were responsible for provoking the unrest. But when pressed, he said members of his security forces "may lose their jobs" if they are found guilty of abuses.

The Full Interview

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As for the fate of those who remain in prison, Ahmadinejad said he hopes they will be released but added that the security forces must have had good reasons for arresting them. "I'm not in charge of judgments in Iran," he said. "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."

While conceding that some protesters may have been incorrectly imprisoned, he said he had to respect the justice system. "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 orders of the judge. Otherwise, there will be no security," he said.

The Obama Administration

Ahmadinejad praised Obama's speech to the U.N. for marking a break with the policies of the Bush administration.

The Iranian president said Obama echoed what the Iranian people and Ahmadinejad himself have been saying for many years.

"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," Ahmadinejad said of Obama. "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."

But Ahmadinejad did not offer any apparent new openings, making it clear that Iran still has "deep reservations in the kind of outlook that some Western politicians have with respect to our country."

Iran's Nuclear Program

Iran faces the threat of additional sanctions over its nuclear ambitions, with the United States and its European allies pushing for new punishments. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev displayed new flexibility on the issue Wednesday, saying sanctions are in some cases "inevitable," although Chinese leaders signaled that they remain opposed to the idea.

On Oct. 1, the United States, Iran and other world powers are scheduled to meet for a discussion on Iran's nuclear program. The meeting represents a new initiative for the Obama administration, which reversed President Bush's policy of refusing to talk to Iranian leaders until they accepted a set of U.S. preconditions.

At the talks, Iran has said it will seek to buy enriched uranium for medical purposes from the United States.

"We want the uranium, and we're willing to purchase it," Ahmadinejad said in the interview. "This is a good way to have exchanges."

The request could put Washington in an awkward position. Tehran has long insisted that it seeks nuclear power solely for peaceful purposes, including energy and to run its medical reactor.

Being turned down could give Iran an excuse to break away from international negotiations. But U.S. officials are concerned that the lower-grade uranium Iran is seeking could eventually be processed into weapons-grade material.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad made no promises about how Tehran would react if the Obama administration ends up approving the sale. "I said it would be a good start," he explained.

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