In an exclusive wide-ranging hour-and-a-half interview with NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth and editors from The Washington Post, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discussed his upcoming talks with the United States, his opinion of President Obama, and his continued denial of the Holocaust, as well as the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan, which he views as doomed. In it he previewed his offer to purchase enriched uranium from the United States for medicinal purposes, which proliferation experts say is likely a nonstarter. Excerpts:
As you know, Iran has been holding a NEWSWEEK correspondent for three months, Maziar Bahari. I know you have been very generous this morning saying you would help release the American hikers. On humanitarian grounds, would you consider releasing Maziar?
I would like all prisoners to be released, but I am not the judge. The judge has to decide on this. If I were in charge of this case, I would guarantee that all the prisoners would be released.
When Iran is trying to restart relations with the West, why would you once again deny that there was a Holocaust when that is so easily disprovable?
Don't you think that the Holocaust is a very important issue?
Yes, I think it is the greatest crime of the 20th century.
So you do agree that it is an important topic. Do you believe that the Holocaust still carries through to this day in terms of its effects today? Could you explain to me how it affects issues today?
It does not matter what I think. It matters what you think, Mr. President.
I understand, but I would like for us to exchange our views so as to resolve an issue here.
The world wants to know what you think.
Who is the world here?
Iran is trying to improve its relationship with the West, as I understand it. It is clear that there was a Holocaust. Why would you say there was no Holocaust? Do you feel there should be no Jewish state—no Israel?
What I am saying is extremely clear. It is an academic approach to a crucial subject and also one based on humanitarian considerations. What I am saying here is that in past history many events have happened, and in World War II many crimes were committed. Over 60 million people were killed and even more were displaced. So we have several specific questions with regard to the events of World War II, and I believe we cannot find the answers to these questions through the propaganda that is promoted by the media. In the end, the questions need convincing answers. The first question that I have to try and understand is why in the midst of all that happened in World War II, the Holocaust is emphasized more than any other [event]?
Let's say that Stalin's crimes were equally great.
The second question is why do Western politicians focus on this issue so much? The third question is how does that event connect with issues that we see around us in the world today? Was this a historical event that happened in isolation without impacting the present conditions? The next question we should ask ourselves is if the event did take place, where did it happen, who were the perpetrators, what was the role of the Palestinian people? What crime have they committed to deserve what they have received as a result? Why exactly should the Palestinian people be victimized? Are you aware that over 5 million Palestinians have been displaced and have had refugee status? What role did they play in the Holocaust? Why is the Holocaust used as a pretext to occupy the land of other people? Why should the Palestinian people give their lives up for it? You are probably aware that there have been embargoes on the people of Gaza.
And they have been hitting Israel with missiles.
At the end of the day the people in Gaza are sitting in their homes living their lives and staying in their homeland. Who is the occupier here? The United Nations resolutions condemn which occupying regime? What fair-minded person can accept that an event that happened in Europe [results] in having his or her land occupied elsewhere in the world? If a crime happened in Europe, why should the people of Palestine make up for it? It is a really clear-cut question. Unfortunately, Western politicians refuse to answer these questions and divert into other areas. We are primarily opposed to the murder of human beings. Sixty million people were killed back then [in World War II], and it is indeed regrettable. It does not matter what creed or belief they came from—human beings and their lives are to be respected simply because they are human beings. I would like to emphasize that we are not living 60 years ago—we are living today. We see the Holocaust as a pretext to commit genocide against the Palestinian people.
We have heard a lot about the debated election in June. There was a lot of contention as to whether or not you stole the election. Are you planning to put [opponent Mir Hossein] Mousavi on trial? Why is the right-wing press going after [Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani?
In Iran, people in different groups are free to determine what kind of political path they would like to pursue. Elections in Iran are carried out within the framework of the law, and they are free. In every election only one person can win. I remember that in my first election run against Mr. Rafsanjani, the very same people who are now opposed to the results of the most recent election were actually running the last election between Mr. Rafsanjani and myself in 2005. The people on his side were the ones who carried out the elections. That is the election in 2005. In the end I think it is all propaganda, and I don't pay it much attention. I don't want to take anyone to court.
Mousavi will not be put on trial?
That depends on the judiciary. It has nothing to do with the government. If there are any violations, the court will handle it. If not, no.
Mr. President, many people in and outside the country are concerned about the way that people who demonstrated against the election have been treated. One of the other presidential candidates allegedly has evidence that people have been tortured and raped, and many people outside the country are concerned about their trials. Are you prepared to discuss these human-rights issues at the upcoming meeting in Geneva?
Do you know the number of prisoners in the United States?
My question is whether you are willing to discuss the situation in Iran.
I understand your question and I want to answer it. Do you know the number of prisoners here in the United States? I will give you an answer; if you please, bear with me. You don't expect me to give you the answer you are expecting. You have 3.6 million prisoners in the United States. Why are they in your prisons? Some of them are electrocuted. Why? Exactly why? There is a law here that deals with such matters. Could we say it is a bad thing? Could we address exactly why 3.6 million people are in prison? If nobody has violated the law, there is no reason for them to go to prison. Once the law is violated, then they could end up in prison. The criminal procedural law in Iran is a very strong one. Each person can go for review before the final verdict is issued. This is very unique by itself. So when a person goes before a court there are five stages—four of which include a review of the case. So within our judiciary system the utmost effort is made to guarantee that the rights of those that appear before the court are upheld. This does not mean that an officer somewhere could not violate the law. Just like the police in New York or elsewhere in the United States who might end up beating up people. That officer is carrying out an offense. But nobody can accuse the United States government of neglect because of that. Our judiciary system will deal with these cases.
The issues that we will discuss at the meeting in Geneva are clear ones: the issue of world security, disarmament, economic problems, and issues confronting international relations. We welcome bringing up human-rights issues, including prisoners who are incarcerated in unknown locations—in Europe, for example; in Guantánamo; including the crimes committed in Afghanistan and in Iraq as well as in Palestine. We will be glad to discuss them all. As well as the violation of the rights of people who are seeking more information in Europe and how it is restricted there. People's access to such information is often so restricted in Europe. We are not even allowed to raise questions about the Holocaust, and you even have scientists and academics imprisoned when they do.
In these talks with the West, you said you will not discuss your nuclear program. Do you stick to that or are you willing to have a give-and-take with the West? Because otherwise there won't be any talks with the West if you are only going to take and not give, Mr. President, which you have done brilliantly so far.
Thank you very much for your optimistic remarks. I believe that if we violate international law and regulations, no one will benefit from it. Everyone must follow international rules. The nuclear issue belongs to the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. The IAEA has a clear-cut path on how to deal with these issues. We have certain commitments and obligations as well as rights within that framework. We will carry out our obligations and also enjoy our rights.
But you have not carried out your obligations. The U.N. has sanctioned you, and the U.N. supersedes your rights under the IAEA. Are you going to suspend your enrichment program? Are you going to cooperate with the IAEA's additional protocol, which you signed initially? [Iran later dropped out.]
Based on official and repeated reports issued by the agency, Iran has carried out its nuclear activities within the legal framework designed by the agency. We have also voluntarily accepted the new obligations over and beyond the legal framework. But we have not fully taken advantage of our rights. Articles two and four of the statute of the IAEA argue that those who possess nuclear technology must assist other countries in the development of their peaceful nuclear technologies. But neither the agency nor its member states have given Iran any assistance in that regard, whereas we have carried out our obligations.
The IAEA report of last August said that the agency "does not consider that Iran has adequately addressed the substance of the issues . . . The Agency has therefore requested Iran to provide more substantive responses and to provide the Agency with . . . access to persons, information and locations." [IAEA director-general] Mohamed ElBaradei—who has been considered to be your strongest advocate in Washington—has questions about whether or not you are conforming to the IAEA or whether or not you are actually working on a nuclear-weapons program.
This is not exactly the right place to get into the technicalities of the issues. But the report has two clear parts. One portion of the report details the questions related to the agency itself. Two years ago we arrived at an agreement with the agency to provide answers to six remaining questions raised by the agency within that first category. Those questions are clear. We gave answers to all of them. The agency validated the responses it received from us. Interestingly, at the end of this two-year time frame, the United States administration came forward with certain claims and allegations against us, demanding the agency to handle those as well. This was in clear violation of the statutes of the agency and of the agreements between the agency and Iran. Under political pressure by the U.S. administration, the agency accepted the list of allegations given to it by the United States and posted it on the agenda all of a sudden. From the start, we disagreed with that approach because it was based on very clear legal categories and rules that were predefined. I think what you were reading from relates to that second set of developments that transpired. As far as we are concerned, they lack any legal credibility. Our commitments to the agency have clearly been itemized and written. If you pay attention, in the same text, there is no mention of our commitments. These are claims made by the United States against us. Legally, we are not bound to provide answers to them. If we agree to answer these questions, we will never be able to enjoy our full rights, and we will never be able to live in peace and security. We have the largest level of cooperation with the agency.
Mr. President, I wanted to turn to the question of President Obama. He has reportedly written two letters to the Supreme Leader in recent months. I wonder if you could tell us the substance of those letters and also what you make of President Obama. How do you compare him to President Bush? Is he a weak leader? A strong leader? Is this someone you could do business with?
You are asking me to give you information about letters that you know about?
I read about them in the Iranian press.
I don't read the press, so I would not know.
Let's just talk about Obama, then.
We believe that the desire here in America for change is one that is on the right track. It is actually a world desire. Under the current status quo, nothing is viable around the world today. Consecutive U.S. administrations have had a substantial role in shaping many of the issues in the world today. It is only natural to expect the U.S. administration to begin change for itself. We believe that change is inevitable and necessary. At the same time, these changes should be real. Superficial changes will not be able to resolve any of the problems we face—they would only complicate them and delay a final solution. We hope that Mr. Obama is seeking real change. We are of the belief that if he decides to, he will at least be able to change a segment of what he has his mind set on. We are willing to help bring about those changes. In the meeting in Geneva, we are ready to discuss some issues, including our willingness to purchase enriched uranium to the grade of 20 percent for our domestic needs. Iran in return will offer solutions to the changes that are required. If Mr. Bush's policies are to be continued with new language, we will not be able to achieve much because that approach is already outdated. Policies must change. If these policies do not change, no real change will happen.
Can you elaborate on what you just said? You said that in Geneva you will agree to buy enriched nuclear fuel? Is that correct? From the United States?
We have a reactor in Tehran that produces nuclear medicine based on radioactive technologies. It requires enriched material to the grade of 19.75 percent. We are prepared to purchase this material. We are prepared for our nuclear experts to sit down and discuss areas of nuclear cooperation towards the purchase of material that we need with experts from the other side. To engage in nuclear cooperation as well as to discuss our need to purchase these materials. I think it is a very solid proposal which gives a good opportunity for a start.
But you are enriching uranium in Iran as we speak. Is that correct? The IAEA says you have enough enriched uranium—I believe it is 4.5 percent—to build a crude device. By what you just said, are you suggesting that you are willing to suspend enriching uranium?
I want to correct you: our level of enrichment is currently at 3.5 percent—within a range of 3 to 5 percent. The materials go to nuclear-power plants. They are useless for a bomb. A bomb needs enriched uranium to the grade of 99.7 percent. We believe that nuclear bombs are a wrong thing to have. Do you know how many atomic bombs the United States has?
I do not. Would you be willing to commit to never building nuclear weapons?
We believe that the premise that countries should or should not have nuclear weapons is wrong to begin with. To that end, we have proposed to engage in disarmament discussions. According to reports that we have received, there are about 10,000 nuclear warheads here in the United States. Don't you think that it is hilarious to say that it is potentially dangerous for the whole world if Iran were to possess one nuclear warhead but the fact that the United States possesses thousands of them poses no threat whatsoever? Isn't it hilarious to imagine that you can basically withstand the force of 10,000 nuclear warheads with only one nuclear warhead? The atomic bomb belongs to the previous generation. The time has passed for the ability to use these weapons any longer. Honestly, if they were of any use, the Soviet Union would not have collapsed—it would have used them somehow. They would have helped NATO win the war in Afghanistan [using nuclear weapons]. They would have helped the Zionist regime win in Gaza and in Lebanon. The nuclear bomb is the most antihumanitarian device ever produced in the history of mankind. With respect to the nuclear issue, we have given two concrete proposals for the P5 +1 [the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany] for negotiation—the first is disarmament and the prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Secondly, we need to pave the way for a collective access to peaceful nuclear technologies through cooperation by all parties. We also believe environmentally, too, that we need to have access to clean energy, secure energy that can be guaranteed. Our position is really clear. We work within the framework of the agency, and we have carried out our obligations so far.
I don't understand how your proposal for purchasing enriched uranium fuel fits in with the overall picture of your nuclear program.
Again, these nuclear materials we are seeking to purchase are for medicinal purposes. The 20 percent material is to produce the drugs we need to cure things. It is a humanitarian issue. They are working on these drugs in Tehran right now. Our reactors are really busy trying to produce these drugs. They have already produced about 20 kinds of different nuclear medicines, but we need to foresee our needs for the next 20 years, and we do need further enriched material. We thought this would be a good start to begin the negotiations.
If you were able to purchase this, what would you give in return?
We would pay money for the material. It is a good start for cooperation and to engage in cooperation. I also said that we would agree to have our nuclear experts sit down and discuss things with nuclear experts from the other side. This would help with confidence and to remove the concerns that are out there on both sides.
Why do you need to have enriched uranium if you don't have a single operating reactor that requires enriched uranium at this moment?
We have a nuclear reactor in Tehran that has been operational for the past 20 or 30 years, I would say—producing medicine. It is still operating. It creates about 20 different kinds of medicine. We have in the past bought the 20 percent enriched uranium from other countries—not from the United States. Now we could buy it from the United States. I think it is a good place to start for cooperating and talking. It is an issue that is humanitarian—it is about medicine.
When you say that nuclear experts from your side will sit down with nuclear experts from the other side to discuss—are you willing to have those discussions cover the outstanding issues of the IAEA?
Why don't we just let them sit and talk and see what capacity they can build?
And this would be part of the Geneva discussions?
That is our proposal, yes. Talks are not one-sided. Is that a problem? I think it is a good thing to happen.
How do you see Afghanistan in the future? Do you see Iranian-U.S. cooperation in Afghanistan or do you see a dominant Iran? I am sure you looked at the McChrystal report, which is very bleak.
Afghanistan is our neighbor. We have deep historical and emotional ties with the place. Several million Afghans live in Iran. Millions of Afghans and Iranians travel between the two places annually. There are many intermarriages that take place. Our relations are very deep. Security in Afghanistan affects Iran the most. I would like to see security restored in Afghanistan as soon as possible. I have said from the start that we are ready to assist, provided that the policies currently pursued change. We believe that the nature of policies in Afghanistan are completely wrong, and there is no need to go about proving it. Many crimes have been committed since the arrival of NATO troops. Obviously the policies are wrong. Even if we were to assist, nothing would be resolved. Afghanistan does not have a military solution to it. Let me ask you something—why is it that the media in the United States does not go in depth analyzing issues? I want to give you reasons here. Has there been anyone around to ask the U.S. government why they entered Afghanistan and engaged at that level?
Did you look at General McChrystal's report? It was very devastating.
Yes, it is true, but after seven years. Before going in, shouldn't these questions have been asked back then? When the warmongering going on under the Bush administration was at its peak?
But 3,000 people did die in New York on September 11.
Sure, but have they managed to reappear and be alive again after the crimes were carried out in Afghanistan? Not only that, but tens of thousands have been killed as the result. You cannot wash blood with blood. Since NATO entered Afghanistan, terrorism has increased tenfold and the production of illicit drugs has increased fivefold. Let me remind you of a historical event—asking American media to remind their managers as well because this is a responsibility of the media—if Mr. Bush was forced to study the past century of the history of Afghanistan, I guarantee you he never would have gone there. Experience has shown that whoever went into that territory with military force left with defeat. About 100 years ago, the British forces entered Afghanistan full on and left with a heavy defeat. Thirty years ago the Soviet Union troops entered Afghanistan and left in defeat. What sort of supernatural force did Mr. Bush envision he possessed that would allow him to win a war that the Soviets and the British could never win? We bring this up as a friendly discussion—we care about what happens. We care when people lose their lives. For every loss of life, the solution gets doubly hard to arrive at. If we did not wish well, we could have stayed silent about it. But we keep saying loud and clear that the policies there are incorrect. The wealth of the European and American people is being used there without any result except defeat. This wealth can be used to build friendships or to reconstruct a place, so it worries us. Everyone knows that NATO is close to a final defeat in Afghanistan. We could just stay silent about it and just be an onlooker because some NATO member states happen to be our enemies. We can be happy because they are getting defeated there. But we are not happy. It saddens us to see what happens. We believe and say that there is a humanitarian solution, and we are really surprised that politicians and NATO have chosen to put earplugs in their ears and not listen to other forms of criticism. We are willing to even assist them in changing their policies there. The precondition is that they have to be willing to listen. The general's report has clearly said that the policies so far have been wrong. So when are they going to change? We believe there are pivotal, fundamental shifts in policy that need to happen. Otherwise changing packages—referring to the nuclear package—without dealing with the substantial part of deeper issues is not going to bring about any results. Policies need to change, and we are willing to assist them.
On the nuclear issue, are you saying that Iran would agree to suspend its production of enriched uranium for medicinal purposes if it's allowed to purchase that enriched uranium? And would that be a first step toward further discussion that could include further suspension in return for further purchases?
We simply don't have the capacity to enrich at 20 percent for medicinal purposes, of the sort that we have in mind, at this stage. It's only at 3.5 percent. We had been buying this material in the past, but not from the U.S. government. We can buy it from the United States. It doesn't really matter who we buy it from, so we are open to it. But this does not affect the fuel cycle. But still, it seems to me a nice opening, a nice window to look through.
In other words, you're saying it doesn't affect the centrifuges you're building and the fact that you could re-spin the low-enriched uranium and make it into high-enriched uranium, as I understand it.
What I am saying is that you're free to make any interpretation of this that you like. We've been very clear about what we're doing. We're simply saying that we need fuel for our power plants, for our reactor. And based on the IAEA rules, we're entitled to this kind of technical assistance. Please do remember when you leave here that one of the main pivotal shifts that must occur is exclusivity on the focus that we give to certain topics but not to others, which leads to double standards. If you do not shift your own position on these [topics], nothing will change.
So, Mr. President, the last question: will you do something for Maziar? Say you'll help him. He works for us. It's a very difficult situation.
I will do my effort. Please advise your colleagues not to break the laws.