Ahmadinejad seeks to soothe critics

In his outward persona at least, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to this country to lessen hostility toward himself and to defend Iran, not to rabble-rouse and provoke hatred. Whether he succeeded remains an open question. 

In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Ahmadinejad presented his country as a reasonable seeker of peace and justice. He denied that it holds any violent intentions against the United States, Israel or any of its immediate neighbors. 

“We seek detente,” Ahmadinejad declared. “Every stance and position has been toward peace.” 

He also denied all the chief accusations against Iran: that it is providing weapons to kill U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, supporting terrorism or breaking international law by developing nuclear weapons. 

As with any world leader, Ahmadinejad’s words cannot just be accepted at face value. Leaders are judged by their actions more than their interviews. 

Given the Iranian government’s record: taking U.S. hostages in 1979, supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, hosting demonstrations with chants of “Death to America,” more recent arrests of intellectuals, and Ahmadinejad’s own questioning of the Holocaust, he faced a hard task softening his country’s image. 

Clearly, however, he was making a bid in the interview — as in his other appearances — to introduce himself as a rational leader, not as the dangerous, hardline radical that he is often perceived to be by many in this country. 

The problems in the Middle East, including Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, can be solved through dialogue, good will and free elections, Ahmadinejad said. Talks with the United States will be fruitful, he said, if both sides are honest and serious. 

He appeared to rule out a first-strike against Israel by Iran, and said he does not really believe that the United States would try to mount a war. He said such talk was just pre-electoral rhetoric and U.S. anger speaking. 

There was notably no bashing of the “Great Satan” in the interview, and he was also somewhat muted in his discussion of Israel, although he always referred to it as “the Zionist regime” rather than by its name. 

The most aggressive things he said were that Israel believes in “expansionist policies,” demonstrated most recently by a Sept. 6 attack against Syria, and that U.S. actions in Iraq had been “misguided” and all about oil. He also suggested that U.S. support for Saddam Hussein back in the 1980s caused the devastating 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran. 

On the nuclear issue, he said the problems between Iran and some Western countries are strictly political, and that most of the world believes that Iran has the legal right to nuclear technology for civilian purposes. 

The United States and key European nations have been pushing for new sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment. Iran insists the program is for peaceful civilian energy production but the U.S. and its allies fear it is a cover to produce nuclear weapons. 

Ahmadinejad said that the International Atomic Energy Agency is responsible for nuclear issues and already has been inspecting Iranian nuclear facilities on an ongoing basis. 

“So we believe that the only way is for us to continue our constructive cooperation and relations with the IAEA, something that has been in place from the start, and if these powers stop interfering, there’s really no problem.” 

Ahmadinejad spoke to the AP just a few hours before he walked into the lion’s den of a Columbia University forum as thousands of people protested outside. That meeting did not turn out well for him: he was excoriated by the university president in opening remarks and laughed at when he asserted that there is no homosexuality in Iran. 

He started out the interview saying he had no “special feelings” about being among most sought-after leaders at the U.N. General Assembly. But he said he was happy to have the chance in the United States to meet with “many friends.” 

He said Iran’s main foreign-policy aims are “peace and viable security for the whole world.” 

“Iran will not attack any country,” he answered, when asked if his country would ever strike first against Israel. Iran has always maintained a defensive policy, not an offensive one, he said, and has “never sought to expand its territory.” 

He also pooh-poohed reports that the U.S. was prepared for military action if diplomatic efforts to get Iran to abandon nuclear enrichment activities failed. 

“I believe that some of the talk in this regard arises first of all from anger. Secondly, it serves the electoral purposes domestically in this country. Third, it serves as a cover for policy failures over Iraq.” 

U.S. military officials insist they have evidence that Iran is providing weapons and training to militants in Iraq, particularly explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, armor-piercing roadside bombs that have killed hundreds of American troops in recent months. Ahmadinejad said it is not so. 

“Why would we want to do that?” he declared. “This would really be inappropriate for us. We are friends with both Iraq and Afghanistan. Insecurity in Iraq and Afghanistan undermines our own national security; it basically goes against what we believe.” 

Rather, he described himself as “extremely unhappy” with the situation and that he rues all the people dying in those countries. 

“It saddens us that people lose their lives in Iraq. We also regret that American troops are losing their lives there,” he said. 

Ahmadinejad urged the United States “to change its path altogether” in Iraq and let the elected government run the country without outside interference. 

Ahmadinejad claimed Iran already has made proposals to U.S. politicians over Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine that are all based on seeking peace in the region. “But we believe that for these to succeed we need two conditions in place: first, seriousness, and second, honesty and sincerity. If the two go hand-in-hand then the results can be effective,” he said. 

Does he believe there is seriousness and honesty from the U.S.? 

“We have to wait — we hope,” he answered. 

Asked if he’d meet any U.S. officials while here, Ahmadinejad smiled and said it was not foreseen. “Anything is possible.” 

“I have suggested that I debate President Bush. I think that the United Nations provides a suitable forum for this. All of the heads of state can sit down. The world can watch for itself, independently. We will offer our proposals for resolving world problems and restoring peace, and allow everyone to think for themselves and decide which one is right.” 

It was, of course, an extremely unlikely suggestion 


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