A Date With a Dangerous Mind

EXCLUSIVE: Face to face with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man whose swaggeris stirring fears of warwith the U.S.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn't one for ceremony. We are waiting in a villa outside Havana when Ahmadinejad strides in without notice, taking even his aides by surprise. He is wearing blue-gray trousers, black loafers and the trademark tan jacket that even he calls his "Ahmadinejad jacket." He mutters something to himself as he settles into an aging leather chair with bad springs. For a moment, he seems irked by the chair, perhaps because it makes him seem even smaller than his 5 ft. 4 in., but soon he's smiling, prodding, leaning forward to make his points. "We are living our own lives," he says, when asked about his differences with the Bush Administration. He jabs the back of my hand for emphasis. "The U.S. government should not interfere in our affairs. They should live their own lives."

When he made his first trip to the U.S. last year for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, Ahmadinejad was still a curiosity--a diminutive, plainly dressed man who had come out of nowhere to win Iran's presidential election. But in New York City this week, he won't have trouble being recognized. His incendiary statements--he has declared the Holocaust a "myth," has said Israel should be "wiped away" and has called the Jewish state "a stain of disgrace"--have made him the most polarizing head of state in the Muslim world. Under Ahmadinejad, Iran has built up its influence in Lebanon and Iraq and made clear its intention to become the dominant power in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. He has also accelerated work on Iran's civilian nuclear program, which the U.S. believes is geared toward producing a nuclear bomb. Though pictures of the Iranian President often show him flashing a peace sign, his actions could well be leading the world closer to war.

For all his bluster, Ahmadinejad remains an enigma. His powers are limited by Iran's political structure, in which ultimate authority over matters of state rests with the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. The regime has threatened to retaliate against American interests "in every part of the world" if the U.S. were ever to launch a military strike against Iran. But Ahmadinejad has also made rhetorical gestures of conciliation, sending an open letter to George W. Bush and inviting the U.S. President to a televised discussion about "the ways of solving the problems of the international community." (Bush ruled it out last week. "I'm not going to meet with him," he said at a White House news conference.)

Ahmadinejad is a skilled, if slippery, debater. In his press conferences, he has shown himself to be a natural politician, gifted in the art of spin and misdirection. Our meeting took place last Saturday in a villa on the outskirts of Havana, where he was attending the confab for leaders of nonaligned nations, a gathering that included other irritants to the West such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe.

Over the course of the 45-minute interview, he was serious, smiling and cocky--evidence of a self-assurance that borders on arrogance. His brown eyes locked onto mine when he made a point about Iran's nuclear program. His rhetoric was measured, but he was adamant on the issues that have made him so controversial. He dismissed U.N. demands that Iran suspend its uranium-enrichment program but said, "We are opposed to the development of nuclear weapons. We think it is of no use and that it is against the interests of nations." He waved a hand dismissively when I couldn't grasp his logic in questioning the Holocaust. Asked to defend his claim that the Holocaust was a myth, he went on a rambling rant, claiming that those who try to do "independent research" on the Holocaust have been imprisoned. "About historical events," he says, "there are different views."

He was more generous and accommodating when it came to discussing the U.S., saying his May letter to Bush was a genuine effort to reach out. He spoke highly of Americans, based on his trip to New York. "My general impression is that the people of the United States are good people ... The people of the United States are also seeking peace, love, friendship and justice."

Whether such talk will be enough to save the two nations from a confrontation remains to be seen. Nor is it clear that Ahmadinejad's own job is secure. Impatience with his failure to fix Iran's economy is growing, and there is some speculation that the Old Guard may try to push him out. But until then, he seems likely to keep challenging the West, stirring things up. He aspires to unite Muslim opinion and make Iran the dominant player in the Middle East, restoring the country to its ancient imperial glory.

Ahmadinejad's handlers said our interview would last only 30 minutes, but he let it go on despite their protests. At last we were passed a note: "The time is over and Mr. President has an important meeting with the Cuban President. Goodbye." Ahmadinejad bolted from the room, swapped his jacket for a suit coat and climbed into a Mercedes. As the car pulled away, he sat in the back with an aide, smiled one more time and threw us a final wave.


On the eve of a visit to the U.S., Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks to TIME's Scott MacLeod about debating President Bush, pursuing nuclear energy and denying the Holocaust

TIME: What were your impressions of New York during your visit to the U.S. last year?

AHMADINEJAD: Unfortunately we didn't have any contact with the people of the United States. We were not in touch with the people. But my general impression is that the people of the United States are good people. Everywhere in the world, people are good.

TIME: Did you visit the site of the World Trade Center?

AHMADINEJAD: It was not necessary. It was widely covered in the media.

TIME: You recently invited President Bush to a televised debate. If he were sitting where I am sitting, what would you say, man to man?

AHMADINEJAD: The issues which are of interest to us are the international issues and how to manage them. I gave some recommendations to President Bush in my personal letter, and I hope that he will take note of them. I would ask him, Are rationalism, spirituality and humanitarianism and logic--are they bad things for human beings? Why more conflict? Why should we go for hostilities? Why should we develop weapons of mass destruction? Everybody can love one another.

TIME: Do you feel any connection with President Bush, since he is also a religious man, a strong Christian?

AHMADINEJAD: I've heard about that. But there are many things which take place and are inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ in this world.

TIME: Why do your supporters chant "Death to America"?

AHMADINEJAD: When they chanted that slogan, it means they hate aggression, and they hate bullying tactics, and they hate violations of the rights of nations and discrimination. I recommended to President Bush that he can change his behavior, then everything will change.

TIME: How do you think the American people feel when they hear Iranians shouting "Death to America" and the President of Iran does not criticize this?

AHMADINEJAD: The nations do not have any problems. What is the role of the American people in what is happening in the world? The people of the United States are also seeking peace, love, friendship and justice.

TIME: But if Americans shouted "Death to Iran," Iranians would feel insulted.

AHMADINEJAD: If the government of Iran acted in such a way, then [the American people] have this right.

TIME: Are America and Iran fated to be in conflict?

AHMADINEJAD: No, this is not fate. And this can come to an end. I have said we can run the world through logic. We are living our own lives. The U.S. government should not interfere in our affairs. They should live their own lives. They should serve the interests of the U.S. people. They should not interfere in our affairs. Then there would be no problems with that.

TIME: Are you ready to open direct negotiations with the U.S.?

AHMADINEJAD: We have given them a letter, a lengthy letter. We say the U.S. Administration should change its behavior, and then everything will be solved. It was the U.S. which broke up relations with us. We didn't take that position. And then they should make up for it.

TIME: Does Iran have the right to nuclear weapons?

AHMADINEJAD: We are opposed to nuclear weapons. We think it has been developed just to kill human beings. It is not in the service of human beings. For that reason, last year in my address to the U.N. General Assembly, I suggested that a committee should be set up in order to disarm all the countries that possess nuclear weapons.

TIME: But you were attacked with weapons of mass destruction by Iraq. You say the U.S. threatens you, and you are surrounded by countries that have nuclear weapons.

AHMADINEJAD: Today nuclear weapons are a blunt instrument. We don't have any problems with Pakistan or India. Actually they are friends of Iran, and throughout history they have been friends. The Zionist regime is not capable of using nuclear weapons. Problems cannot be solved through bombs. Bombs are of little use today. We need logic.

TIME: Why won't you agree to suspend enrichment of uranium as a confidence-building measure?

AHMADINEJAD: Whose confidence should be built?

TIME: The world's?

AHMADINEJAD: The world? The world? Who is the world? The United States? The U.S. Administration is not the entire world. Europe does not account for one-twentieth of the entire world. When I studied the provisions of the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty], nowhere did I see it written that in order to produce nuclear fuel, we need to win the support or the confidence of the United States and some European countries.

TIME: How far will Iran go in defying Western demands? Will you wait until you are attacked and your nuclear installations are destroyed?

AHMADINEJAD: Do you think the U.S. Administration would be so irrational?

TIME: You tell me.

AHMADINEJAD: I hope that is not the case. I said that we need logic. We do not need attacks.

TIME: Are you worried about an attack?


TIME: You have been quoted as saying Israel should be wiped off the map. Was that merely rhetoric, or do you mean it?

AHMADINEJAD: People in the world are free to think the way they wish. We do not insist they should change their views. Our position toward the Palestinian question is clear: we say that a nation has been displaced from its own land. Palestinian people are killed in their own lands, by those who are not original inhabitants, and they have come from far areas of the world and have occupied those homes. Our suggestion is that the 5 million Palestinian refugees come back to their homes, and then the entire people on those lands hold a referendum and choose their own system of government. This is a democratic and popular way. Do you have any other suggestions?

TIME: Do you believe the Jewish people have a right to their own state?

AHMADINEJAD: We do not oppose it. In any country in which the people are ready to vote for the Jews to come to power, it is up to them. In our country, the Jews are living and they are represented in our Parliament. But Zionists are different from Jews.

TIME: Have you considered that Iranian Jews are hurt by your comments denying that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust?

AHMADINEJAD: As to the Holocaust, I just raised a few questions. And I didn't receive any answers to my questions. I said that during World War II, around 60 million were killed. All were human beings and had their own dignities. Why only 6 million? And if it had happened, then it is a historical event. Then why do they not allow independent research?

TIME: But massive research has been done.

AHMADINEJAD: They put in prison those who try to do research. About historical events everybody should be free to conduct research. Let's assume that it has taken place. Where did it take place? So what is the fault of the Palestinian people? These questions are quite clear. We are waiting for answers.

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