Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep in New York on Monday.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep in New York on Monday. Joel Riddle/NPR
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to criticize the U.S. during an address this week to the United Nations General Assembly. But in an interview with NPR, Ahmadinejad disputed that was his intention — up to a point.
Speaking to Steve Inskeep through an interpreter, Ahmadinejad said, "We do not have confrontations with anyone. The U.S. administration interferes, and we defend ourselves."
Ahmadinejad said that diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States should continue to open up, citing a willingness to cooperate to uphold security in Iraq.
Asked what steps might help ease those relations, Ahmadinejad said, "We've never entered the United States and caused problems for the people here, but the American government has done that to us. So, our first proposal is that the government has to stop doing that."
The Full Interview With President Ahmadinejad
NPR: I'll get right to an important point: Is confrontation with the United States in Iran's national interest?
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: We do not have confrontations with anyone. The U.S. administration interferes, and we defend ourselves.
NPR: Clearly, there's more than one viewpoint on that. There are efforts to get Iran to change its policies on nuclear fuel enrichment, for example. Why is that not a confrontation?
Ahmadinejad: It is us who doesn't seek confrontation. But, as I explained it. It's the U.S. administration that interferes regarding the rights of the Iranian people and we defend ourselves.
NPR: Is there nothing about Iran's actions or rhetoric which can be seen as defiant and defying people in the world with whom you disagree?
Ahmadinejad: And who exactly are you referring to when you say the international community?
NPR: When I speak of the international community, I would speak of the United States; I would speak of European nations that have urged Iran to change its nuclear policies. I would speak of Russia, which has made proposals; I would speak of China, which has been involved. I could go on for quite some time.
Ahmadinejad: What right do they have to make such demands on us? Based on what legal system or what international regulation and law? Exactly where do they find the legal basis to demand such things from our people? Whilst they are enjoying nuclear energy, they are telling us not to?
NPR: You raise an interesting point. You have argued that Iran has a legal right to enrich uranium. Many countries in the world are concerned that Iran's real purpose is seeking a nuclear weapon. You have denied this. You have said this is not your intent; people are not persuaded. What can you do? What can you offer to convince the world that your purposes are, in fact, solely peaceful?
Ahmadinejad: Well, first of all, the people of the world, the majority actually, support our stand. One hundred eighteen member states of NAM have declared their commitment to our program and supported it. The Non-Aligned Movement. And 57 member states of the OIC, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, too have supported our position.
Eight countries of the G-8 group have actually supported us. As well as the 15 countries of the Group of 15.
So, clearly, the people and the governments are supporting us. You are speaking of only three or four countries, led by the United States and with a couple of their European friends, and we don't care about them, because they don't represent the whole world.
NPR: Let me return to my original question. Is a confrontation with the United States in Iran's national interest?
Ahmadinejad: What exactly do you mean? What is it that we should be looking for?
NPR: When there is talk of war with Iran, when comments are made about breaking hands or cutting hands if there is an attack on Iran; when there is rhetoric against Israel; when there is great concern around the world about the future of Iran and its relations with other nations in the world — that is the confrontation I'm asking about. Is such a confrontation, regardless of who's responsible, in Iran's interest? And is it in Iran's interest to actively seek to resolve it?
Ahmadinejad: We do not have any confrontation with anyone. We seek relations based on respect and justice. Let me turn the question around and ask you, exactly where is the world that you are speaking of? Again, 118 members of the Non-Aligned Movement are supporting us. Fifty-seven countries of the OIC. So the world that is concerned that you refer to, who is it? Which world? Is it really the U.S. administration and its group of friends?
NPR: I've named the United States; I've named Europe; I've named Russia; I've named China.
Ahmadinejad: Why is it that the U.S. administration and two or three groups that follow it allow themselves to speak for the world? We believe that that is the root cause of the confrontation. Simply because the U.S. administration and a few number of its European allies believe that they own the world. They want to interfere in anything that goes on around the world. I'd like to ask you, is it the Iranian army that's around the territories around the country, or is it the U.S. troops that are around?
It is the U.S. troops around our borders. It is not ours around the American borders. So what exactly are they doing over there?
NPR: I think it is fair to say that there has been rhetoric on both sides. I think it is fair to say that you have spoken of wiping countries off the map, and chopping off hands. Does that rhetoric, when you speak that way — do you, in fact, play into the hands of President Bush? You give rhetoric that reinforces his case. He says you are a certain kind of leader, and you pose as that leader.
Ahmadinejad: You've asked a good question. I think that it's necessary to open up a bit regarding the relations between Iran and the United States.
You are aware that 55 years ago, the U.S. government overthrew the national government of Iran through a coup, and imposed a tyrannical dictator on our people.
For over 25 years under the dictatorship, hundreds of thousands of our people went to prison and spent time there, whilst our oil was being looted by American companies. Our people were demeaned. Our independence was harmed.
Until the Iranian people rose [in] a popular and democratic event to create the Islamic revolution.
NPR: My time is short — be assured I am aware of the history.
Ahmadinejad: You know the history, but it has to be repeated to the people who are your listeners. While America was there, we had no elections in our country. Nonetheless, when the Islamic Republic came into being, the U.S. government rose against it with all its might.
NPR: Let me ask about that.
Ahmadinejad: Several coup attempts occurred. The eight years of war between Saddam [Hussein] and our country were actually supported directly by the United States. From Day 1, our people were — sanctions were imposed on our people. So who exactly is the provocateur? Who is the one who seeks war?
NPR: You've posed a question, you've posed a question — let me address it if I might. Because I need to — my time is short, your time is short. Please understand I mean no disrespect. Thank you, my question is this — coming back to now, history being what it has been, reality being what it is, do you feel any obligation — do you have any proposal that you can make to move the situation forward from what it is today in the real world, two countries that have been greatly opposed? Is there any small step that you can think of, to move forward?
Ahmadinejad: Well, yes. Of course, we've never entered the U.S. and caused problems for the people here, but the American government has done that to us. So our first proposal is that they have to stop doing that.
NPR: That is a proposal for them; what about for you?
Ahmadinejad: I've taken a lot of leaps forward in this respect. I sent a letter to Mr. Bush. That was a very good opening.
I even said that I am prepared to talk at the United Nations with them. We responded positively to the request made by U.S. government to extend a hand of cooperation in a joint security commission involved in upholding a security force for Iraq. So we did whatever we could. And we believe it's time for the American government to act.
NPR: Is there a concrete proposal that you can make that would convince the government that Iran can enrich uranium peacefully, and provide some kind of guarantee, whether it be monitors or some other method; does your country, does your government that you represent have any proposal that it can make that would reassure the world when it comes to uranium?
Ahmadinejad: Again, it's not the world people, it's the American government that's concerned.
NPR: I take it that's a no, you're not interested in proceeding.
Ahmadinejad: Of course we do have a proposal and that's to advance law for everyone. That the U.S. administration extend at least the equivalent of one-tenth the cooperation we have extended to the [International Atomic Energy Agency]; we believe that the IAEA itself offers the best guarantee. And we believe that the American administration itself should cease putting pressure on the people who work at the IAEA.
Now how so is it that a country that possesses tens of thousands of nuclear bombs and has in fact actually used one against another nation is imposing its will on us, and we are a country that is simply seeking peaceful nuclear energy? There are a lot of good proposals that can be offered in this area.
NPR: That can be offered, but not by you.
Ahmadinejad: In fact, I've given many, many proposals. We just think it's the policy approach of the U.S. government that's been nonresponsive and must change. It is not our proposals that are going to fix the problem. It is something else.
NPR: Let me delve into two more areas. As you know, Mr. President, you are known in much of the world, and not only in the United States, as the man who wants to "wipe Israel off the map." Are you?
Ahmadinejad: Is the problem of the U.S. government the Zionist regime? I believe the extremity to which the U.S. government has gone to extend support to the Zionist regime has caused the U.S. government problems around the world.
NPR: Do you accept the label of the man who wants to wipe Israel off the map? You're not?
Ahmadinejad: Please pay attention to the fact that there are two issues that go side by side in this discussion. The first part is the proposal we have given to resolve the problem of Palestine. For 60 years, wars and killings have been going on over there.
Every peace proposal that has been put on the table so far has failed to give results. Why? Because it neglects the rights of the Palestinian people. Our proposal has been to offer the Palestinian people a free referendum. Everyone who lives in Palestine [should be able] to participate in a referendum to decide the future and the nature of its government.
Let me create an analogy here — where exactly is the Soviet Union today? It did disappear — but exactly how? It was through the vote of its own people. So therefore in Palestine too we must allow the people, the Palestinians, to determine their own future.
And then the second side of this same issue, and I'd really like to invite you to pay attention to it. Especially you — you must, because you are always being subjected to [the] unilateral sort of information that is coming from the administration here.
Let's ask ourselves, where exactly did the Zionist regime come from? Palestine has existed historically with people who live there for thousands of years. Then at gunpoint several million of the indigenous people there were forced out of their homes and became displaced. And it didn't stop there; others were brought from elsewhere in the world to replace them. How can you accept this regime?
NPR: If you will forgive me, the time is short.
Ahmadinejad: Well, everything is related to history. Imagine, somebody comes and occupies the United States, and say it's history, don't say anything else about it.
NPR: I'm not saying don't say anything else; I'm saying our time is limited. You mentioned, Mr. President — you mentioned elections. You mentioned a referendum, which raises another question in my mind.
Iran's democracy, Iran's elections have a feature that is different from the United States, that we should explain.
In Iran, the government disqualifies many candidates, sometimes thousands of candidates, if they do not have what is considered to be the appropriate beliefs. They are not permitted to run.
Why do you not trust Iran's people to make that choice, instead of the government making it for them?
Ahmadinejad: I, in fact, believe that elections in Iran are among the freest in the world. There's at least 100 times more freedom in Iran than there is in the United States.
NPR: Why don't you trust people to vote for everybody?
Ahmadinejad: We trust people! Elections are free in Iran!
NPR: After the candidate rolls are removed.
Ahmadinejad: It's the restrictions here that exist — we have a law in Iran. According to the law, whoever possesses qualifications to become a candidate can run — for example for the presidential elections.
A clear example of the confidence we place in the people is I, myself. I didn't belong to any party. I taught at the university.
NPR: And if your supreme leader didn't want you to run, you would not run.
Ahmadinejad: No, not at all. There were seven other candidates...
Ahmadinejad: Eight candidates —
NPR: Who were permitted. In legislative elections, thousands were disqualified.
Ahmadinejad: From many different groups and parties. Even independents. Free assorted [indecipherable] campaigns. The national TV actually gave time to all of them equally. I was an independent candidate, without any party affiliations. Only the academics supported me. And I was voted into office. And now I'm the president. I ask you, can anyone in fact become a president without the support of either of the two parties here in the United States?
NPR: Anyone may put his name on the ballot in the United States.
Ahmadinejad: Are 300 million people here in America members of either of the two parties? No, not necessarily. People have no other choices here. You only have two choices. In Iran, at least, we have eight. Who is more free? Who has more confidence in its people?
NPR: Eight people in the political spectrum from about here to here, and I'm holding my finger an inch apart. If I may ask one more question, if I might, Mr. President.
Ahmadinejad: So then, you do agree there are restrictions, even farther here in the United States and elsewhere?
NPR: I do not agree. The United States — the American system has its own problems, which we may discuss in another interview. I would look forward to the discussion.
Ahmadinejad: Why do you assume that your system is better than everybody else's?
NPR: I assume nothing, Mr. President, I ask questions. And my final question is this: Many visitors to Iran have remarked on an interesting trend.
Many Iranians listen to Western music, watch Western television, read Western books if they can get them, and appear to have disassociated themselves with politics. That raises a question of whether you have lost touch with many of your people.
Ahmadinejad: In fact, I'm one of the few people, one of the people who is, at all times, among the Iranian people.
I have links with everyone in Iran. The Iranian nation is a free one. And they elect freely. It's always been the case. There are no restrictions for them. Why do you think that that's a new trend? It's the same mistake that the American government makes.
NPR: You say there are no —
Ahmadinejad: Just wait for three months, and on the anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution, you will see how people react on the scenes.
NPR: Haven't the police confiscated satellite dishes?
Ahmadinejad: But that's a different discussion, no! It's a law. We are not addressing the law. The law was passed as a bill when it happened. There are other issues there. Sure, there are some problems, but it has nothing to do with the discussion.
Again, wait for another nine months, and you'll see the vast turnover of the people in the presidential elections. Please remember that close to 98 percent of the people support the Islamic Revolution. I am in touch with people on the streets.
NPR: Do you read Western —
Ahmadinejad: There's a lot of freedom in Iran. The example is our interview with you. Can you ask your own president these questions? Can you really so freely meet with him so easily? Never.
NPR: Do you —
Ahmadinejad: You cannot freely ask questions.
NPR: Do you watch any —
Ahmadinejad: But everybody asks questions from me freely.
NPR: Do you watch any Western television programs, Mr. President?
Ahmadinejad: Yeah, like everyone else!
NPR: What programs?
Ahmadinejad: People, after all, like movies and shows...
NPR: What's something you've seen recently?
Ahmadinejad: Of course, very little, I mostly watch Iranian TV and listen to international news.
NPR: Any Western music that you listen to or books that you read?
Ahmadinejad: Sure, me too, like everyone else, but this isn't what matters. That's not how nations matter. People in Iran see everything, read everything, they don't restrict themselves to one outlet.
NPR: The Beatles? Led Zeppelin?
Ahmadinejad: And it doesn't basically put restrictions on itself. They use whatever they have! But that's the Iranian nation. And they know how to defend their own rights, too. They won't put up with force or with domination. Whoever, by whoever, please remember that.
NPR: Mr. President, thank you for taking the time today.
Ahmadinejad: Wish you luck and success. We'll try to create the same ambiance for talks with your own president here, too.
NPR:: Tashakur. Thank you.