Ahmadinejad Challenged on Nuclear Issue, Israel Robert Siegel talks with Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, about the council's meeting Wednesday with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Haas describes the meeting as often combative, with members challenging Ahamdinejad on Iran's nuclear policy, and on his views about the Holocaust and Israel.
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Ahmadinejad Challenged on Nuclear Issue, Israel

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Ahmadinejad Challenged on Nuclear Issue, Israel

Ahmadinejad Challenged on Nuclear Issue, Israel

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Joining us now is Richard Haas, who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, which hosted President Ahmadinejad yesterday after his speech before the General Assembly. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RICHARD HAAS (Council on Foreign Relations): Thank you.

SIEGEL: What was the point of inviting President Ahmadinejad and was it successful?

Mr. HAAS: Well, the point of it is to set up a meeting where we could get our views and concerns, and by we I mean members of the Council on Foreign Relations, expressed directly to him in an unfiltered way. And secondly, it gave us a chance to hear from him straight, which in my experience always gives you a better sense of exactly who it is and what it is you're dealing with.

SIEGEL: After hearing from him straight, how in any way was your opinion of either the Iranian president or our situation with Iran changed?

Mr. HAAS: It's impossible to meet with him and not get a sense of his confidence at a minimum. This is someone who relishes the give and take. And that's something of a mixed blessing. Quite honestly, the meeting was often combative. People challenged him on the denial of the Holocaust, challenged him on his views on Israel, challenged him on Iran's nuclear policy. We did hear a few things that were interesting.

For example, a very strong disavowal of any desire for nuclear weapons based upon religion, basically saying that Iran as a religious state had no interest in nuclear weapons. Also an expressed desire to cooperate with the United States in Iraq, and a general openness to relations with the United States, saying only that the ball is in our court.

SIEGEL: You're hardly an innocent in these matters. I mean, you've worked on the National Security Council staff at the State Department. What do make of a declaration from the Iranian president, we're not interested in nuclear weapons?

Mr. HAAS: Not a whole lot because if they enriched uranium that would give them, if you will, 90 percent of what it is they need to build a nuclear weapon. So it explains why the policy emphasis is not focusing on the line between having nuclear fuel or building a weapon but rather is focusing on either prohibiting them or placing a very low ceiling on the amount of nuclear fuel they would want to have.

I think to some extent, Robert, it was a bit of a debating point on his part, essentially saying who are you, the United States, to tell us that we can't do certain things when you yourself have nuclear weapons.

SIEGEL: And what do you make of the Holocaust denial or at very least minimization. Is he unfamiliar with the slaughter of the Jews in Europe, or is it a debating point in the way of needling people.

Mr. HAAS: It's a fair question. It's hard to believe that he or anyone else could be unfamiliar with the basic facts, so to some extent it may be a debating point. It clearly gets under the collective skin.

It may also simply be a political point, that domestically and in parts of the Arab and Muslim world, for him to stand up and say these things wins him some favor. He is competing, if you will, for popularity in his country. He's competing for position beyond Iran's borders.

And it's quite possible that this kind of posturing which he's got to know is intellectually empty and even politically offensive, one has to think that he's smart enough to know that he's doing it, if you will, for tactical reasons.

SIEGEL: In the New York Times account of the Ahmadinejad appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, at least one councilmember came away and was quoted, "if this is the person that we're going to be dealing with in Iran, there's going to be a war with Iran," he said.

Mr. HAAS: I think it's too - that's too strong, to say that. But the one part of it which is sobering in addition to the obvious policy differences and all that is that whenever you deal with a leader who's confident, it's something of a mixed blessing.

Confidence can be good because it gives leaders the ability to make compromises if they so want. But confidence that spills over into cockiness can be dangerous, because history is filled with examples of leaders who are cocky and as a result often overreached. And that can trigger, shall we say, international crises or worse.

And I think the question about Mr. Ahmadinejad is exactly where he fits on that spectrum. He's clearly extraordinarily confident. He clearly enjoys or more the give and take of political debate. He clearly also enjoys a degree of domestic political support that none of his elected predecessors had. The real question is whether he has a propensity to go too far, and I think that is really the question ultimately for policymakers.

And for me, the challenge for the United States is to test Iran, to have a dialogue with them and to try to separate what is simply rhetoric and what ultimately will be Iran's bottom line.

SIEGEL: Richard Haas, thank you very much for talking with us once again.

Mr. HAAS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Richard Hass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, speaking to us from New York City.

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