Talking to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—and the opposition—about Iran today.
by Jon Lee Anderson 
Ahmadinejad is an engineer by training, with a Ph.D. in traffic management, but he seems to think of himself as a sort of moral philosopher. As is his custom, he began our interview with an unprompted soliloquy about “the universality of humanity, love, friendship, and respect,” then grinned good-naturedly when I asked him if he understood why some were made nervous by his repeated calls for the destruction of Israel and his insistence on Iran’s right to nuclear energy. He replied, “The Iranian nuclear-energy program and the issue of Palestine are two separate issues. They have no connection to one another.” He went on, “Iran has accepted the Non-Proliferation Treaty, we have signed it, and officials of the I.A.E.A. are present in our country; they have cameras that have all of our activities under surveillance. Has the American government accepted the Non-Proliferation Treaty? Hasn’t it used the bomb? Hasn’t it stockpiled them? Who should be concerned about nuclear weapons; should they be concerned or should we?”
Even leaving aside the fact that the U.S. did ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in 1970, Ahmadinejad’s arguments seemed diversionary. A consensus has grown in the West that Iran is indeed seeking the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense, said in June that intelligence suggested Iran could have enough enriched material for a bomb in the next one to three years. A former senior U.S. civilian official who is privy to the Obama Administration’s Iran policy told me, “Information I have seen suggests that Iran has gone beyond its argument that it does not seek a nuclear weapon.” The Iranians have argued that their aims are limited to a civilian nuclear program, but, the official said, “on the basis of the available evidence, it seems that the Iranians would like to be able to be in the position to make a bomb without actually making one.”
This possibility has distressed American strategists, who feel that there is little difference between having a weapon and being ready to make one. But some analysts think the idea of the bomb could be as useful to Iran as the bomb itself. The Iran expert told me, “The danger posed by Iran is in the eye of the beholder. I do believe that Iran wants a nuclear-weapons capability, but first and foremost for its defense, in order to have a deterrent capability.” He pointed out that Iran’s nuclear program went back to the nineteen-seventies, when the Shah was in power, and intensified in response to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons. In recent years, with “two to three hundred thousand American troops on either side in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a nuclear-armed Israel,” the desire for a deterrent had “accelerated” in Iran.
This view is complicated by Iran’s position in regional politics. The United States and Israel have long argued that Iran maintains a program of covert support for terrorism in the Middle East, through Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Hamas, in Gaza. Last January, it was reported that the U.S. Navy intercepted an Iranian freighter loaded with military supplies as it headed for Syria, and in November Israel’s Navy stopped another ship carrying war matériel; the cargoes were believed to be bound for Hamas and Hezbollah. In March, after several days of meetings with Arab and Israeli leaders in the Middle East, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that she had heard many complaints about Iran’s meddling in the region. “It is clear Iran intends to interfere with the internal affairs of all of these people and try to continue their efforts to fund terrorism, whether it is Hezbollah or Hamas or other proxies,” she said.
When I raised these concerns, Ahmadinejad responded dismissively. “Look, these questions brought up by the Zionists belong to the same order of things that should be eliminated,” he said. “We have never hidden our support for the people of Lebanon, Palestine, or Iraq. . . . We do it with pride, as an act of humanity. The people of Palestine are in their own home. So are the people of Lebanon and Iraq, and in Afghanistan, too. We are not in the home of the Americans. These people who are now governing as Zionists, where were they eighty years ago?”
Arguments like this are now familiar, and, along with Ahmadinejad’s routine denials of the Holocaust, have led to widespread public outrage in the West and embarrassment in some circles in Iran. Whether he is genuinely or willfully ignorant of twentieth-century history, he certainly understands the provocation he causes with his outrageous language. He looked delighted when I asked if he believed in an international Zionist conspiracy to control the world. (He intimated that he did.) As a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he suggested, as he has before, that a referendum be held on Israel and the Occupied Territories. “We believe that the people of Palestine, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or Jew, should be allowed to choose their own fate. Those who came from elsewhere, if they are interested in staying, should live under the government of the people, and that government will decide what they should do. If they want to return to their own lands, they can do so.”
When the interview turned to internal politics, Ahmadinejad denied the numerous reports about his government’s repression of reformists, journalists, and human-rights activists. “One of the problems of the leaders of the West is their lack of information about the issues of the world,” he said. “Show me a country in the West where eighty-five per cent of the people participate in Presidential elections! There aren’t any! Iran is the record-holder in democracy. . . . Today you can see that all my rivals and the so-called ‘opposition’ are free.” He compared the violence against the Green Movement’s demonstrators with the unrest at the recent G-20 summit. “If someone sets fire to a car or a building in America, what will they do to him?” He said he had been “shocked” by TV images showing riot police beating demonstrators, “all because they were against the failure of the West’s economic policies.” He told me, with an earnest look, “Iran would never behave in that way toward people.
Ahmadinejad’s claim is contradicted by the accounts of many witnesses. Karroubi later e-mailed me, “Since the very early days after the election, the regime aimed at confining me and controlling my links with my entourage and the members of my party. The state’s first step toward this confinement was to shut down my newspaper, my party’s office, and my personal office.” Karroubi also confirmed the reports of attacks against him, describing the mobs of hard-liners as “mercenaries.” “In my meetings with clerics and other officials, as well as during public ceremonies and events, some mercenaries would attack me. They even went as far as attempting to assassinate me and shooting at my car.” In Qom, he said, they also attacked the houses of Ayatollah Saanei and the late Ayatollah Montazeri after his visits there, breaking their windows. “All these actions have been carried out in order to confine me and to terrify those willing to stay in contact with me.”
Still, Ahmadinejad insisted that in Iran there was freedom to say and do as one liked. “Look here, you are comfortably speaking to me with no apprehension,” he said. “No American President has ever had the courage to allow an Iranian reporter to do the same, to freely ask him questions. Is this a freedom or a dictatorship?”
When I asked Ahmadinejad if he would allow me to interview Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami, he said, “Is it up to me to authorize someone to interview someone else? Everyone is free. Of course, some people may have some limitations within the judicial system; that is up to the judge; it has nothing to do with the government. There is freedom here. They all have Web sites, news channels, and newspapers, and they say whatever they want about me. No one disturbs them.”
But the closing of Karroubi’s newspaper was part of a wide-ranging censorship drive, in which numerous other publications, including political, economic, and cultural journals, were suspended or banned for such transgressions as provoking “unrest and chaos” and fostering a “creeping coup.” Official firewalls have been erected to block Western and Iranian opposition news sites; many Western satellite TV channels, such as the BBC’s highly regarded Farsi-language service, have also been blocked intermittently.
Ahmadinejad affirmed that relations between Iran and the U.S. had become increasingly confrontational: “I am not happy with this situation. Iranians are not happy with it.” He recalled that after Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 he had sent the new President a congratulatory open letter and soon after proposed bilateral talks, “in front of the media.” As a result, he had endured a great deal of criticism at home and abroad, he said, but Obama had not reciprocated. Instead, there had been only threats from him since he became President.
In fact, within weeks of taking office, Obama released a video message to Iran, on the occasion of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in which he offered his commitment to a policy of “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect” and “to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us.” Ayatollah Khamenei, who ordinarily does not involve himself in public politics, challenged Obama’s message, saying that Iran wanted more than “changes in words” from the United States.
Since then, Obama’s team has pursued opportunities for dialogue, while remaining insistent that Iran not develop a nuclear weapon. (In this year’s Nowruz message, Obama lamented that, “faced with an extended hand, Iran’s leaders have shown only a clenched fist.”) During the post-election unrest, Obama awkwardly refrained from embracing the Green Movement protests, apparently on the assumption that any statements of support might undermine the chances for nuclear talks.
In May, Ahmadinejad signed a deal with the leaders of Brazil and Turkey, in which Iran promised to hand over approximately half of its stock of low-enriched uranium in exchange for a smaller quantity of more highly enriched uranium—sufficient for Iran’s medical needs and research purposes. Although the Obama Administration had previously encouraged Brazil and Turkey to intercede, it rejected this deal, on the ground that it did not address concerns over Iran’s nuclear intentions, and immediately sought the new sanctions package at the U.N. Security Council. Ahmadinejad shook his head. “What was the response? A sanctions resolution,” he said. In America’s government, “the personalities have changed, but the policies have not changed. They still think they need to hold up a bludgeon in order to get concessions from us,” he said. “Remember that this method has already failed. It has been tried before, and has no future. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama is on the road to failure.”
As the interview ended, Ahmadinejad and I got up from our seats, and technicians removed our earphones and microphones. One of the President’s aides said to him, “It seems like the Americans want to sort out all their problems with the Muslim world at once!” Ahmadinejad, evidently concerned that the remark was being picked up by a microphone, said curtly, “Be careful what you say!”