The following is a transcript of my conversation with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. The interview was conducted in New York City on September 20, 2011.
Nicholas Kristof: Mr. President, welcome to New York. Thank you very much for taking the time. If I can start by asking about the American hikers. You said on Sept. 13 that they’d be free in a couple of days. What happened and when will they be handed over?
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: In the name of God the most gracious the most merciful I would like to, with your permission, greet all of your readers as well as web viewers and wish all of them the success and blessings of the almighty. As you are well aware the American citizens trespassed our borders illegally, according to which we undertook proper prosecution through the proper channels in the judiciary. There have been efforts to free them. And I do believe that all governments do have quite deep punishments for illegal trespassing of their sovereign borders. And we have undertaken efforts to, God willing, free them as soon as possible and it will happen, God willing.
N.K.: But what went wrong? You said on Sept. 13 that they would be freed within a couple of days and that did not happen. In a sense, are you not speaking for the complete Iranian government? Are there other forces trying to block them?
M.A.: No there have been no issues to speak of. I said on Sept. 13 that they would be freed in a matter of a few days and it turns into a few days, which we’re still going through those few days. But I was quoted as saying “a couple of days.” It’s a legal process that we must go through.
N.K.: So would you expect that in the next week they would be released?
M.A.: Right within that time frame. In a matter of a few days they will be freed.
N.K.: On another aspect of Iranian/US relations, you have raised the possibility that if the United States were willing to provide low enriched uranium, 20 percent grade, that Iran would stop enriching to that level. Is that offer still on the table? Mr. Abbasi-Davani, the head of the Iranian nuclear program, was quoted as saying that that was no longer a possibility.
M.A.: Who did you hear that from sir?
N.K.: Mr. Abbasi-Davani was quoted as saying that before you spoke—before your interview with The Washington Post. What he said was that Iran will no longer negotiate a fuel swap and a halt to our production of fuel and that the United States is not a safe country with which we can negotiate a fuel swap or any other issue.
M.A.: Yes this is a historic takeaway for us. Many times there have been conversations and agreements, and results were not seen. Tangible results. That alone perhaps is a reason why Doctor Abbasi would be disappointed. We did, I’m sure you do recall, help such talks, but that was turned into a political chance for the western powers. If they give us the 20% enriched uranium this very week, we will cease the domestic enrichment of uranium of up to 20 percent this very week. We only want the 20% enrichment for our domestic consumption. If they give it to us according to international law, according to IAEA laws, without preconditions, we will cease domestic enrichment. This is not something we wish to produce and sell on the open market. 20% enriched uranium, as you know, is not useful for much of anything other than the production of cancer treatment medication. It is not useful for a power plant.
N.K.: One concern that the West would have over that proposal is the question of verification. The facility outside Qom was in effect kept secret until it was discovered and there are concerns that Iran is enriching in locations we don’t know about. How do you address that and would you be willing to accompany this proposal with robust verification measures?
M.A.: According to the charter of the IAEA we can undertake such activities but must let the agency know 6 months before the start of enrichment. In the facilities around the holy city of Qom we let the agency know 18 months prior to the start of the enrichment, so in reality what laws have we broken? Unfortunately political pressures exerted onto the IAEA have derailed its core mission. According to the law, again, we were obliged to let them know 6 months ahead of the start of enrichment, but we let them know 18 months ahead of time. So we have done nothing wrong. But, under pressures of the United States government and other governments, they succumb to these political pressures. If they would move according to the laws, we would have no issues, we would have no challenges. All of our facilities have been transparent, continue to be transparent, all of them are open to the IAEA inspectors and have also IAEA cameras installed in them for continuous monitoring.
N.K.: So I just want to make sure I understand the outline of that deal. If western countries provided 20 percent enriched fuel for the Tehran reactor, then Iran would stop all further enrichment. Is that correct?
M.A.: Yes, yes, we’ve said this before. We’ve said this many times. This is nothing new.
N.K.: Once before when this question of moving fuel outside Iran came up, there seemed to be disagreement between you and other figures in the country. Is it clear that you and your supreme leader absolutely agree on this? That you were speaking for the entire country on this question?
M.A.: When were there differing positions? When did we speak with anything other than a united voice? There were no differences of opinion. Again, if they give us 20 percent enriched uranium, according to IAEA norms, they must give us the fuel and receive proper compensation for it. Anything outside of this framework is illegal. Again the 20 percent enriched uranium other than to be used in the reactor which produces cancer treatment medication is not useful for anything else. It cannot be used for the production of energy and it must be stored in a very sensitive and expensive facility. It has no other use. Twenty percent enriched uranium must be either used for medical purposes for which we set up a reactor and there is only…we have only been able to produce 10 kilograms. If they were willing to sell us the 20 percent enriched uranium we would have preferred to buy it. It would have been far less expensive. It’s as though you wish to purchase a vehicle for yourself. No one is willing to sell it to you, then you must set up your own production line to produce your own vehicle. Which way is more comfortable and less expensive for you? We were forced to set up a factory for a very small quantity. And this is not the type of merchandise or good that we can take to the open market and sell and make a profit on. For each reactor we must make a custom order.
N.K.: And would there be any circumstances in which Iran would transfer nuclear materials or nuclear technology to another country?
M.A.: We have even accepted this. Even though it was a precondition and illegal at its foundation. We were willing to exchange, swap the fuel, in Brazil or Turkey, but the United States government…well what can I say? It is the United States government.
N.K.: There’s been a lot written about Stuxnet. A lot written in this country about Stuxnet. Can you tell us how much it did impede the centrifuges in Iran and to the extent that there was a problem, has that now at this point been largely resolved?
M.A.: It did not really damage at any level. These types of things do not damage Iran. We have software specialists and program specialists that are very experienced. No one can really disable Iran with an Internet virus.
N.K.: In 2003 there was discussion of a Grand Bargain between Iran and the U.S. resolving so many of these issues. At that time Iran seemed quite open to such a deal. Is a Grand Bargain still viable in your mind between Iran and the United States today?
M.A.: We always keep an open mind. We have always been open. We voluntarily shut down our facilities for 2.5 years and we voluntarily executed all of the requirements and implemented. But unfortunately instead of an easing of foundation-less accusations there was an increase in these accusations. So we decided to go back to the letter of the law. No more, no less. Of course we are ready for cooperation. We have always been ready and willing to cooperate and start a dialogue. Let’s have a dialogue. Let’s have mutual enrichment, multilateral enrichment. But unfortunately it’s the United States government. They tend to act unilaterally and force parties to do things and unfortunately we do not react too well to forceful situations but if we go back to the spirit and the letter of the laws and fairness and justice for all we will overcome most of the challenges. An entity that has 5,000-7,000 nuclear weapons in her arsenal…is that entity in a position to tell others not to obtain nuclear weapons? Is this fair? But that’s not even our intention. We wish to use it for peaceful purposes. They tell us you cannot even do that. Whereas they have used it before for war. This is unfair, this is unjust, this is not going to yield results. Those days are gone, those thoughts, those behaviors, can no longer solve the world’s issues. The behavior must change. A behavior modification must be brought about. By accusing Iran, America will not be able to fix her financial and economic problems. American politicians are always hard at work in order to create an external enemy or external evil in order to alleviate problems at home. But allow me to ask you: Is Iran really responsible for the health care challenges, financial challenges, housing and mortgage challenges in the U.S.? High rate of unemployment? Decreasing the quality of education? Is really the Iranian enrichment responsible for all of these domestic challenges? So if we resolve the Iranian uranium enrichment challenges all of these problems in Iran will go away? So the only impediment to democracy and stability and security around the world is Iran? If we did not have enrichment in Iran there would be no problems in Iraq and Afghanistan? These are propaganda campaigns and they’re used to it. They’ve always been like this. They make a lot of noise. They should think of behavior modification and all problems shall be solved.
N.K.: In terms of behavior, or in terms of opportunities for a dialogue between Iran and the United States, do you see any difference between President Obama and his administration and that of George W. Bush?
M.A.: Well we were quite hopeful to see some tangible differences. We were looking forward to seeing such differences. Mr. Obama promised change at every level. Deep changes. Many have been left disappointed. We are hopeful that it will take place. Dialogue has certain conditions. It has certain natural frameworks of justice, of mutual respect, of pure intent, and of friendship, and partnership. We cannot hold a stick over someone’s head and force them into dialogue. This is not the spirit of dialogue and cooperation or negotiation. Officially Mr. Obama said that we wish to handicap Iran through embargoes. Trade embargoes. These were not presidential words. Even though the people of Iran are a great people, Iran is a great nation. And as she has, she will continue to live without the United States She can continue to live without the United States. But for a nation like the United States of America, it is not presidential for its chief to speak in such terms. He could have said “I wish to open a dialogue with Iran under a mutually respectful conditions.” We have no problems. We have said it since a long time ago. Under proper, respectful, just fair conditions, we will sit down and open a dialogue. And I repeat the same, it’s true today. It wasn’t us that had problems with the United States of America. There was a unilateral cessation of diplomatic relations started by the United States of America. It wasn’t us. Have we ever tried to come to the United States to carry out a coup d’état? Have we ever occupied countries bordering the United States militarily? Have we ever threatened military action against the United States? We never have. The various governments of the United Sates throughout time have occupied lands bordering our nation, endangering our security, putting us under sanctions, meddling in our internal affairs, showing animosity. Why? What have the Iranian people done to you? What has the Iranian government done to you? Nothing. We had a revolution to free ourselves. And we did. Prior to our freedom, in result of the revolution, a violent dictatorship that was supported by the United States was against the people of Iran. But from the day in which people in Iran gained control of their destiny, following the revolution, we have been brushed aside. Why? Today, the government of the United States says “I stand for democracy.” Why is it that you’re against a democratic country like the Islamic Republic of Iran? There is no advantage in this for them. Being friends with Iran is to their benefit. But friendship has a specific framework. You cannot hold a weapon onto somebody’s face forcing them into your version of friendship. That will not work. They say “we will pressure Iran into a dialogue or negotiations.” How? This is not friendly. And it will never yield results. Iran is a great nation. It has a rich history going back thousands of years. A great people. They will not surrender so easily.
N.K.: Mr. President, I agree with you that Iran is a great nation. Many of us would agree that the United States has made terrible mistakes in the past in Iran. But those of us who have argued for dialogue, for some kind of a Grand Bargain frankly feel undermined by your government. It is harder to argue for that kind of dialogue at a time when there seems to be a pattern of nuclear deception, when there has been repression of political dissidents, when our American hikers have been imprisoned for what we perceive as unjust reasons for far too long. So it seems to us that a considerable amount of the responsibility also rests on the shoulders of your government.
M.A.: I am not saying that everyone doesn’t bear a certain responsibility but I ask you: If a hiker runs through a red light, because he or she is a hiker, the police will forgive them and not issue a citation? If a hiker breaks the laws because he or she is a hiker, then the law will forgive? There have been in every country illegal trespass of the borders of a sovereign nation is a crime. Does the United States government allow Iranian citizens to trespass her borders and enter illegally by boat through a body of water…will they allow such a thing? If they trespass and infiltrate the United States or enter illegally, then we can say, well perhaps they were just engaging in a boat race and they did not intend to do so. Would this be acceptable to the U.S.? No! These talks of democracy and human rights, this is something on the world’s scale. No one is in a position to impose their standards or versions on anyone else. If there is an agreement to be reached, we must sit at the table of conversation and reach a mutually beneficial path. Who says that democracy is stronger in the United States then it is in Iran? Who has said that? Really in the United States people are sovereign? Really are the people willing to spend their hard-earned dollars in Afghanistan and Iraq rather than being spent on themselves? Are they willing to lose their sons and daughters in foreign lands for unclear purposes rather than receive those funds for education and health care? When they’re unhappy it shows that they are not in control of their destiny. They do not get the right to choose. So when the will of the people does not prevail, it shows that they do not directly participate. So it’s the political parties that are in control here.
M.A.: Vis a vis democracy, there must be a formula, a model that must be reached that can be duplicated across the globe. As far as the voice of the people, Iran is much farther ahead compared to the United States. I was a teacher; I was chosen. I was elected by the people and I was not a member of any party. Now—I ask you, in the United States a presidential candidate that does not belong to one of the two main parties—can he or she be elected? No! Can you fit 300 plus million people in two parties, Republican and Democrat? No. But the official members of both parties probably do not surpass half a million. But as far as democracy there must be an informed dialogue. No one can enforce their will—their version of democracy on anyone else—with force, with weapons. And no one can reach that same goal by accusations, by empty accusations. The same goes for human rights. We must all sit and try to reach a mutually beneficial goal. Acceptable goals, ethical goals. The United States government is always seeking to impose her formula, her will, on everyone else. It will not work. Even if NATO comes into the scene alongside the U.S., they will not succeed. Do you think in Afghanistan human rights are being practiced? Security is no longer an issue? Everyone is happy in Afghanistan today? Is there stability? No! Is it the same in Iraq? Absolutely not! So the behavior—the path they’ve chosen—was wrong and is wrong. Everyone, all of the world, together, in unison, must sit and reach these conclusions. No one can see themselves only as the speaker for the whole—of humanity. There are only 300 plus million people in the United States, and many subject matter experts and philosophers and scientists in the rest of the world as well, everyone must help in giving shape to a formula that’s acceptable to everyone. Only in that case will there no longer be unfounded accusations. We are ready to actively participate. We don’t say the word “complete” and have no challenges or issues. we’ve never said that. Nor do we believe that. but we’re not the only ones who have issues. The United States has many more compared to us. So does Europe. Everyone does. Show me one place that has completely and has a spotless record of observing human rights and democracy. In the United States over 30,000 people a year are murdered. Each day 30 people across the United States are killed by police. These numbers have meanings. I’m not trying to accuse or convict the police across the United States but it shows that there is a fundamental underlying issue. We must identify that issue. Accusing everyone without solid foundations and proof will not solve anyone’s issues.
N.K.: Speaking of countries that are not spotless, tell me about Syria and what President Assad should do in terms of the uprising in his country.
M.A.: Syria is just like any other country. We have said that they must sit at the table of dialogue with mutual understanding and respect and resolve their issues. Fairness, freedom and respect is the right of all people. With clashes and confrontations problems will not be solved. They will be multiplied. Differences will be multiplied and magnified. And certainly foreigners must not intervene. Intervention of foreigners will only make the problem that much bigger, and will never solve it.
N.K.: But Mr. President, in Syria, as you say, clashes and confrontation made the problem worse but isn’t that also true of Iran, after your re-election, there were between 100 and 200 people killed, rival politicians are in prison. Aren’t you failing to accept the same advice that you were giving to President Assad?
M.A.: In Iran things were quite different, and are quite different. In total there were 33 lives lost. More than 2/3 of those killed belonged to the security forces and innocent bystanders. Less than 1/3 were those who clashed with the security/police forces. So they were a very very small minority.
N.K.: So when you saw the photo of Neda Soltan, what did you think?
M.A.: It was incredibly sad, due to many reasons. First we have proof that that scene was staged, and she was killed later, at a later point. This footage was shown for the first time by BBC. Our security officers and officials had no information of such a thing. but if BBC makes the complete footage from beginning to end available to us, we will analyze it, we will research it because we do search for those who are truly guilty of murdering this young lady. And also, a scene fairly close to this—almost a photocopy I would say—was repeated previously in a South American country—in a Latin American country. this is not a new scene. And they previously tell those who are due to participate, they tell them that “you will be participating in making a short footage, a short movie, a short clip.” After their participation is finished they take them to some place and they kill them. If BBC is willing to broadcast this film, this footage in its entirety, any viewer would be able to distinguish whether it is as we say or it is as they maintain.
N.K.: Mr. President, it’s true that many of the criticisms of your government come from the United States, but it’s not entirely from the West. Just a few days ago, Desmond Tutu from South Africa and President Ramos-Horta of East Timor, both Nobel Peace Prize winners, called on you to allow the education of the Bahai and to stop what they regarded as the persecution of the Bahai. Can you address that? And also the perception that Iran has serious human rights problems of its own?
M.A.: If you want to politicize the issue of human rights it will never be resolved. It is not a political achievement; it is a human achievement. Do you even know the group that you name? Do you know their makeup? Are they a religious group? A truly faithful group? Or a political group? Or an intelligence security group? Let’s make sure they are all named? Let’s make sure they all come forward. Let’s see their true makeup. In the United States is everyone free to do as they wish? There are no laws to respect? If anyone breaks the law will they not be put in front of the judiciary? In Iran there are laws. There are judges. There is an independent judiciary who is not under my control. The judge hails from the government. But the government cannot say or maintain or expect to exert influence on the judge and the judiciary. They adhere to the letter of the law. Because we adhere to the law we do not intervene in the judiciary’s affairs. Perhaps we can reach the conclusion that at some point in time a certain judge has reached the wrong conclusion or passed the wrong verdict. Does this never happen in the United States of America? Does this never happen anywhere else? Yes, we’re all human beings and human beings make mistakes. But can anyone say that in the United States judges do not vote politically? Out of political inclination? Yes, here the government can exert pressure on judges. But in Iran, there is no such possibility because the judiciary is completely independent from the rest of the government. And as far as the two Americans are concerned, we requested that of the judiciary. We requested that they be set free. We requested their forgiveness or a reduction in their penalty but they’re free not to accept my request. I cannot command them to do so.
N.K.: Mr. President, at the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, people were widely upset by the Shah’s regime. They wanted a more Islamic regime. But these days, so many young Iranians know nothing about life before. It seems to me that they are upset by economic difficulties, by corruption, by what seems to me to be fundamentally hypocrisy. What they perceive as hypocrisy. Do you worry that young Iranians who have seen no other government, that in a sense, you’re losing them? That you’re losing their loyalty?
M.A.: Have you seen Iran sir?
M.A.: How many times?
N.K.: Twice but once really. I had a wonderful time.
M.A.: This Thursday I traveled to one of the provinces. I walked through the streets for many hours in the middle of my people. Most of them were made up of the youth. What you say is not really tangible; it’s not a reality. Iran is a nation. They may have differences of opinion, they may have criticisms between one another, based on different opinions, but they all love their country, they all work hard for their country. I think the picture, the framework that you have in your mind based on that, one can reach the wrong conclusion. Perhaps a group may not like me. They’re free to feel that way. They have every right to feel that way. I cannot make everyone like me, or back me, or support me. We respect all of them. And we serve all of them. Now after we implemented the cessation of the social welfare programs, which encompassed every segment of the population, there were those who were for it and there were those who were against this policy. So what you’re talking about exists everywhere. Is every American happy of life in the United States. as it is today? No. If you allow them to come and speak their mind, what would they? They would speak against the United States congress, they would speak against their state governments, their local governments, their judiciaries, and so on. So judgments must be toned down and based in reality.
N.K.: As you look ahead to another 20 years, say, from now, what kind of a country do you foresee? Do you foresee it becoming closer to the West? Do you think that divide is going to diminish? Do you see it becoming more linked to middle eastern countries? Less linked? What about young people? Just tell me a little about your vision of Iran in 20 years.
M.A.: So are you suggesting that we get closer to the west?
N.K.: I would love that.
N.K.: Because I think it would support global peace and development if Iran and the West had more of a dialogue, had more interchange, and were closer to each other.
M.A.: What you say sounds really good and I do agree with you. World peace is only achieved through participation of all parties involved. Everyone must have a share and help. But when it comes to national interests challenges are much more numerous in the west. Does Iran face more problems or Europe? Does Iran face more problems or the United States of America? I believe that in the next 20 years God willing that Iran will be a very advanced country, with great achievements and great scientific achievements. And because they will feel that they have to protect their own interests the west will also seek a rapprochement with Iran. allow me to remind you of this: the United States and her allies have put Iran under sanctions. And they have named it “crippling sanctions.” And they did their best. I will testify to this. I will attest to the fact that they did their best. So let no one believe that the sanctions did not work well. They worked well. But is today the Iranian economy facing a deeper crisis or is the United States economy facing a deeper crisis. Where are the crises? The United States government that was the principal enactor of the sanctions against Iran is suffering the depth of the economic collapse that you see her. so it clearly shows that we must change our lens, we must change our mindset, the situation is not always as we wish it to be. we must also accept it with its reality. Perhaps I can sit and draw a picture of the United States as I want it to be but seldom does reality make itself according to my portrayal. Only at a time when my portrayal is an accurate portrayal will it fit in the same mold and the same thing goes for Iran. Perhaps in our mind we have a certain picture that we would like to draw, it will not necessarily be true. Iran is a great nation. It’s been living her life, serving its people, but you see the world has changed. The dynamics and international relations have changed. Everyone wants legitimacy. Everyone—rights must be respected—we must all join hands. And no one is boss. Let’s remember: no one is master and no is a slave. We truly like and love the people of the United States like people from any other country. We love all people. And we do wish security, success and stability for every person, throughout the world. We believe that success and stability and security will only be achieved through mutually respectful and sincere collaboration which we’ve always been ready for. I wish you success as well sir.
N.K.: Thank you very much for your time.
M.A.: You asked very good questions. Thank you very much. We have a lot of freedoms in Iran. I do not believe that you can gain this easy of an access and speak so easily, so at ease, with the president of the United States but you can do that with the Iranian president. This is one of the one of the differences between our two countries.