Notwithstanding the confrontational tone of the interviewers, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke with Spiegel about what he expects from US President Barack Obama, why America’s new Afghanistan strategy is wrong and why Iran should have a spot on the UN Security Council.
Interview conducted by Dieter Bednarz, Erich Follath and Georg Mascolo
Spiegel: Mr. President, so far you have traveled to the United States four times to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations. What is your impression of America and the Americans?
Ahmadinejad: In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, I am pleased to be able to welcome you to Tehran once again, after our extensive conversation almost three years ago. Now on the USA: Of course, one cannot get to know a country like the United States in short visits, but my speech and the discussions at Columbia University were very special to me. I am quite aware that a distinction must be drawn between the American government and the American people. We do not hold Americans accountable for the faulty decisions of the Bush administration. They want to live in peace, like we all do.
Spiegel: The new US president, Barack Obama, directed a video address to the Iranian nation three weeks ago, during the Iranian New Year festival. Did you watch the speech? Ahmadinejad: Yes. Great things are happening in the United States. I believe that the Americans are in the process of initiating important developments.
Spiegel: How did you feel about the speech?
Ahmadinejad: Ambivalent. Some passages were new, while some repeated well-known positions. I thought it striking that Obama attached such high value to the Iranian civilization, our history and culture. It is also positive that he stresses mutual respect and honest interactions with one another as the basis of cooperation. In one segment of his speech, he says that a nation’s standing in the world does not depend solely on weapons and military strength, which is precisely what we told the previous American administration. George W. Bush’s big mistake was that he wanted to solve all problems militarily. The days are gone when a country can issue orders to other peoples. Today, mankind needs culture, ideas and logic.
Spiegel: What does that mean?
Ahmadinejad: We feel that Obama must now follow his words with actions.
Spiegel: The new US president, who has called your aggressive anti-Israeli remarks "disgusting," has nevertheless spoken of a new beginning in relations with Iran and extended his hand to you.
Ahmadinejad: I haven’t understood Obama’s comments quite that way. I pay attention to what he says today. But that is precisely where I see a lack of something decisive. What leads you to talk about a new beginning? Have there been any changes in American policy? We welcome changes, but they have yet to occur.
Spiegel: You are constantly making demands. But the truth is: Your policies, Iran’s disastrous relations with the United States, are a burden on the global community and a threat to world peace. Where is your contribution to the easing of tensions?
Ahmadinejad: I have already explained this to you. We support talks on the basis of fairness and respect. That has always been our position. We are waiting for Obama to announce his plans, so that we can analyze them.
Spiegel: And that’s all?
Ahmadinejad: We have to wait and see what Obama wants to do.
Spiegel: The world sees this differently, and we do too. Iran must act. Iran must now show good will.
Ahmadinejad: Where is this world you are talking about? What do we have to do? You are aware that we are not the ones who severed relations with America. America cut off relations with us. What do you expect from Iran now?
Spiegel: Concrete steps, or at least a gesture on your part.
Ahmadinejad: I have already answered that question. Washington cut off relations.
Spiegel: Are you saying that you would welcome a resumption of relations with the United States?
Ahmadinejad: What do you think? What has to happen? Which approach is the right one?
Spiegel: The world expects answers from you, not from us.
Ahmadinejad: But I sent a message to the new US president. It was a big step, a huge step. I congratulated him on his election victory, and I said a few things to him in my letter. This was done with care. We have been and continue to be interested in significant changes taking place. If we intend to resolve the problem between our two countries, it is important to recognize that Iran did not play a role in the development of this problem. The behavior of American administrations was the cause. If the behavior of the United States changes, we can expect to see important progress…
Spiegel: …that could lead to a resumption of diplomatic relations, perhaps even to the reopening of the embassy, which was occupied in 1979, the year of the revolution?
Ahmadinejad: We have not received an official request in this regard yet. If this happens, we will take a position on the matter. This is not a question of form. Fundamental changes must take place, to the benefit of all parties. The American government must finally learn lessons from the past.
Spiegel: But you should not?
Ahmadinejad: Everyone must learn from the past.
Spiegel: Then please tell us which lessons you are learning.
Ahmadinejad: We have been under pressure for the past 30 years, unfairly and without fault on our part. We have done nothing…
Spiegel: …according to you. The Americans see things quite a bit differently. The 444-day hostage crisis during which 50 US citizens were held from late 1979 until early 1981 in the US Embassy in Tehran is still a collective American trauma today.
Ahmadinejad: But think of the things that were done to Iranians! We were attacked by Iraq. Eight years of war. America and some European countries supported this aggression. We were even attacked with chemical weapons and your country, among others, aided and abetted those attacks. We did not inflict an injustice on anyone. We did not attack anyone, nor did we occupy other countries. We have no military presence in Europe and America. But troops from Europe and America are stationed along our borders.
Spiegel: The Western governments, including Germany’s, are convinced that Iran supports terrorist organizations and that Iran has had dissidents killed abroad. Perhaps mistakes were not just made by the one side?
Ahmadinejad: Do you wish to imply that the troops are deployed along our borders because we allegedly support terrorist organizations?
Spiegel: We neither said nor implied that. But the accusation of support for terrorism has been made. Where is your constructive contribution?
Ahmadinejad: First of all: We do not commit terror, but we are victims of terror. After the revolution, our president and prime minister were killed in a bombing attack in the building adjacent to my office. Our faith forbids us from engaging in terrorism. And when it comes to the constructive contributions we are being asked to make, we have contributed to stabilization in both Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years. While we were making these contributions, the Bush administration accused us of doing the opposite. Do you believe that problems can be solved with military force and invasion? Wasn’t the strategy employed by America and NATO wrong from the start? We have always said that this is not the way to fight terrorists. They are stronger than ever today.
Spiegel: Again, we see no evidence of any self-criticism.
Ahmadinejad: Then why don’t you tell me what mistakes we are supposed to have made. We have no interest in a historical settling of accounts.
Spiegel: You are not insisting that the Americans apologize for the 1953 CIA coup against the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh?
Ahmadinejad: We don’t want to exact revenge. We merely want the Americans to correct their course. Do you truly see any signs that this is happening?
Spiegel: Yes, we do. George W. Bush declared Iran a member of the Axis of Evil and he threatened Tehran, at least indirectly, with regime change. There is no longer any mention of these things under Obama.
Ahmadinejad: There are changes in the choice of language. But that isn’t enough. For the past 30 years, Germany and other European countries have been under pressure from the Americans not to improve their relations with Tehran. That’s what all European statesmen tell us.
’All Peoples Are Fed Up with the American Government’
Spiegel: Is that what former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said to you when you met with him here in Tehran in February?
Ahmadinejad: Yes, he said it, as well. We now hope to see concrete steps. This is good for everyone, but it is especially beneficial to the United States because the American position in the world is not exactly a good one. No one places any trust in the words of the Americans.
Spiegel: It is true that America’s reputation in the world suffered under George W. Bush. But with all due respect, Mr. President, Iran’s reputation has also suffered tremendously during your term in office.
Ahmadinejad: Where? With whom? With those in power or with the people? With which people and with which governments? During my more than three years in office, I have visited more than 60 countries, where I was received with great affection by both the people on the street and those in the government. We have the support of 118 countries in the Non-Aligned Movement. I agree that our reputation with the American government and some European governments is not positive. But that’s their problem. All peoples are fed up with the American government.
Spiegel: But you are not even giving the new administration a chance. Your attitude is characterized by mistrust.
Ahmadinejad: We speak very respectfully of Barack Obama. But we are realists. We want to see real changes. In this connection, we are also interested in helping correct a faulty policy in Afghanistan.
Spiegel: What do you propose to do?
Ahmadinejad: Look, more than $250 billion (€190 billion) has been spent on the military campaign in Afghanistan to date. With a population of 30 million, that comes to more than $8,000 a person, or close to $42,000 for an average family of five. Factories and roads could have been built, universities established and fields cultivated for the Afghan people. If that had happened, would there have been any room left for terrorists? One has to address the root of the problem, not proceed against its branches. The solution for Afghanistan is not military, but humanitarian. It is to the West’s advantage to listen to us, and if it does not, we wash our hands of the matter. We are merely observers. We deeply regret the loss of human life, no matter whose lives are lost. This is just as applicable to Afghan civilians as it is to the military forces that have intervened.
Spiegel: That doesn’t sound at all like you have any interest in helping the Americans and NATO fight the Taliban. Obama is placing more emphasis on civilian reconstruction, but he also believes that radicals who seek to stand in the way of this reconstruction must be dealt with militarily.
Ahmadinejad: I am telling you now that Obama’s new policy is wrong. The Americans are not familiar with the region, and the perceptions of the NATO commanders are mistaken. I am telling you this as a trained teacher: This is wrong. As far as the $250 billion is concerned: If the money had been spent in America, perhaps it would have solved the problem of unemployment, at least in part. And perhaps there would be no economic crisis today.
Spiegel: Are you seriously insisting on an American withdrawal from the region?
Ahmadinejad: One has to have a plan, of course. A withdrawal can only be one of several measures. It must be accompanied by other, simultaneous actions, such as strengthening regional government. Do you know that narcotics production has grown fivefold under the NATO command in Afghanistan? Narcotics! That kills people. We have lost more than 3,300 people in the fight against drug smuggling. Our police force made these sacrifices while guarding our 1,000-kilometer border with Afghanistan.
Spiegel: Iran has always been opposed to the Taliban. But its return to power cannot be prevented without military force.
Ahmadinejad: The people should be given the power. This requires economic aid, as well as a clear political process. The Afghan government should have been given more responsibility in the last seven years. President Hamid Karzai said to me once: They don’t allow us to do our work.
Spiegel: Everyone, including the Americans, stresses that the people must be respected. Obama and NATO have agreed to a comprehensive list of measures for Afghanistan and they are banking on Iran supporting these measures, out of an interest in a stabile Afghanistan. Do you intend to refuse all cooperation?
Ahmadinejad: I believe that the right approach to looking into such an option is the diplomatic path. You are journalists, not representatives of NATO, which is why I will not explain my position to you in this regard. If we receive a request through diplomatic channels, we will respond to it.
Spiegel: But some politicians in Tehran fear contact with America. According to US officials, your deputy foreign minister, Mohammed Mehdi Ahundzadeh, shook hands with US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke at the Afghanistan conference in The Hague last week, but then the Iranian foreign ministry vehemently denied the encounter. How can we have any faith in your willingness to cooperate if a harmless handshake presents a problem to you?
Ahmadinejad: I don’t think that this is truly relevant. A handshake, a pleasantry, this is not a problem in my view.
Spiegel: You are downplaying it. But perhaps there is more to the turmoil over the handshake than meets the eye. Perhaps it is a symbol of how deep the divide is between Tehran and Washington — and of the fact that you are actually unwilling to do without your favorite archenemy.
Ahmadinejad: Naturally, we cannot expect to see problems that have arisen over more than half a century resolved in only a few days. We are neither obstinate nor gullible. We are realists. The important thing is the determination to bring about improvements. If you change the atmosphere, solutions can be found.
Spiegel: Do you, like the Americans, distinguish between the incorrigible Taliban, who must be opposed, and moderate Taliban, with whom talks are possible?
Ahmadinejad: I would not venture a conclusive verdict in this regard. I don’t know what is meant by that. Don’t forget, the Afghan people have close historical ties to Iran. More than 3 million Afghan citizens live in our country. And because we are also friendly with the Germans, I repeat: A stronger military presence is not a solution.
Spiegel: Are you concerned about German soldiers in Afghanistan?
Ahmadinejad: We also love the Germans. We are concerned.
Spiegel: And yet you ignore the consequences.
Ahmadinejad: No. If something is explained to us in a logical way, we accept it. We negotiated with Americans in Iraq, even though it contradicted our basic principle of not talking to the Americans. We did it for the sake of the matter, within the context of clear logic.
Spiegel: If the American troops withdraw from Iraq, the security situation there will presumably deteriorate dramatically. Will you fill the power vacuum in neighboring Iraq, where your fellow Shiites make up two-thirds of the population? Do you advocate the establishment of a theocracy, an Islamic Republic of Iraq?
Ahmadinejad: We believe that the Iraqi people are capable of providing for their own security. The Iraqi people have a civilization that goes back more than 1,000 years. We will support whatever the Iraqis decide to do and which form of government they choose. A sovereign, united and strong Iraq is beneficial for everyone. We would welcome that.
Spiegel: American intelligence services have concluded that Tehran plays an entirely different role in Iraq. The CIA claims that Iran is stirring up resistance to US troops through the Shiite militias.
Ahmadinejad: We pay no attention to the reports of American intelligence services. The Americans occupied Iraq and are responsible for its security. In the past, they sought to divert attention away from their own failures by holding us responsible for the unrest. They must correct their own mistakes. Things have improved for the Americans since they recognized this and began to respect the Iraqi people. Our relations with Baghdad are very close. We fully support the Iraqi government. As always, our policies are completely transparent.
Spiegel: Mr. President, that is not true. You oppose the world’s most important nations in one of the central international conflicts. Iran is strongly suspected of building a nuclear bomb under the guise of civilian research. Only recently, US President Obama warned of this very real danger during his visit to Europe. There are four UN resolutions calling upon Iran to stop its uranium enrichment activities. Why do you not finally comply with this demand?
’We Are Concerned and Deeply Mistrustful’
Ahmadinejad: What do you mean by that?
Spiegel: Mr. President, we mean that the world is waiting for a sign from you, that we are waiting for a sign. Why do you not at least temporarily suspend uranium enrichment, thereby laying the groundwork for the commencement of serious negotiations?
Ahmadinejad: These discussions are outdated. The time for that is over. The 118 members of the Non-Aligned Movement support us unanimously, as do the 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. If we eliminate duplication between the two groups, we have 125 countries that are on our side. If a few countries are opposed to us, you certainly cannot claim that this is the entire world.
Spiegel: We are talking about Europe and the United States, where not a single politician wants to meet with you. Senior Italian politicians avoided you at a UN conference in Rome last year.
Ahmadinejad: We see that too, of course. But we are saying that Europe is not the whole world. Why do you believe this? Besides, I didn’t even want to meet the Italian politicians.
Spiegel: Even if you refuse to believe it, the most important international body, the United Nations Security Council, is often unanimously opposed to you. Not just the Western powers, but also China and Russia have already approved sanctions against Iran.
Ahmadinejad: Allow me to set things straight, both legally and politically. At least 10 members of the UN Security Council…
Spiegel: …which includes, in addition to the permanent members, US, Russia, Great Britain, France and China, 10 elected representatives based on a rotating principle…
Ahmadinejad: …have told us that they only voted against us under American and British pressure. Many have said so in this very room. What value is there to consent under pressure? We consider this to be legally irrelevant. Politically speaking, we believe that this is not the way to run the world. All peoples must be respected, and they must all be granted the same rights.
Spiegel: What right does Iran feel deprived of?
Ahmadinejad: If a technology is beneficial, everyone should have it. If it is not, no one should have it. Can it be that America has 5,400 nuclear warheads and Germany has none? And that we are not even permitted to pursue the peaceful use of nuclear energy? Our logic is completely clear: equal rights for all. The composition of the Security Council and the veto of its five permanent members are consequences of World War II, which ended 60 years ago. Must the victorious powers dominate mankind for evermore, and must they constitute the world government? The composition of the Security Council must be changed.
Spiegel: You are referring to India, Germany, South Africa? Should Iran also be a permanent member of the Security Council?
Ahmadinejad: If things were done fairly in the world, Iran would also have to be a member of the Security Council. We do not accept the notion that a handful of countries see themselves as the masters of the world. They should open their eyes and recognize real conditions.
Spiegel: Those real conditions include your refusal to abandon your nuclear program, despite international pressure. Does this mean that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, can save themselves the trouble of holding talks with Iran? Will uranium enrichment not be discontinued under any circumstances?
Ahmadinejad: I believe that they already reached this conclusion in Vienna. Why did we become a member of the IAEA? It was so that we could use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. When a country becomes a member of an international organization, must it only do its homework or is it also entitled to rights? What assistance have we received from the IAEA? Did it provide us with any know-how or knowledge? No. But according to its statutes, it would have been required to do so. Instead, it simply executed instructions coming from America.
Spiegel: With all due respect, Mr. President, Iran has concealed, tricked and misled, thereby arousing the world’s suspicions. Unfortunately, the suspicion that you are abusing your rights and secretly developing a bomb is not so far fetched.
Ahmadinejad: Where did we use trickery? That’s a huge lie! We cooperated with the Atomic Energy Agency. And besides, wasn’t the IAEA founded so that the nuclear powers would disarm? Where are the reports that document who has disarmed, and to what extent? It simply has not happened. We are concerned, and we are deeply mistrustful.
Spiegel: The world distrusts you, and the world’s greatest concern is that you are building the bomb, because you feel surrounded by nuclear powers, the United States, India and Pakistan, and not least because Israel possesses the bomb.
Ahmadinejad: We have no interest in building a nuclear weapon. We have sent the IAEA thousands of pages of reports and made thousands of hours of inspections possible. The IAEA cameras monitor our activities. Who is dangerous, and whom should the inspectors distrust? Those who secretly built the bomb, or us, who are cooperating with the IAEA?
Spiegel: One can certainly not speak of a true willingness to cooperate on your part. Director General ElBaradei has repeatedly said this in our conversations and this is also documented in publicly-available IAEA reports.
Ahmadinejad: Allow me to make two final observations regarding the nuclear dispute. First, as long as there is no justice, there can be no solution. One cannot measure the world with a double standard — that was Mr. Bush’s big mistake. The Americans should not make the same mistake again. We say: We are willing to cooperate under fair conditions. The same conditions, and on a level playing field. The second observation concerns the warmongers and Zionists …
Spiegel: … your eternal enemy of convenience …
Ahmadinejad: …whose existence thrives on tension and who have become rich through war. And then there is a third group, the intolerant, those who are only interested in power. Mr. Obama’s biggest problem has to do with domestic policy. On the one hand, America needs Iran and must newly realign itself. On the other hand, the new US president is under pressure from these groups. Courageous decisions are needed, and the ball is in Obama’s court.
Spiegel: Until recently, your views about America included the conviction that a black man could never become president of the United States. Is it possible that you have a faulty and completely distorted image of America?
Ahmadinejad: No, it wasn’t the way you describe it. We hope that the changes in American policy are of a fundamental nature, and that more has changed than the color. And that American policy will become more equitable, for the benefit of Africa, Asia and, most of all, the Middle East.
Spiegel: You have become one of the most powerful political players in the region because you have become a champion of the Palestinian cause.
Ahmadinejad: We are defending more than the basic rights of oppressed Palestinians. Our proposal for resolving the Middle East conflict is that the Palestinians should be allowed to decide their own future in a free referendum. Do you think it right that some European countries and the United States support the occupying regime and the unnatural Zionist state, but condemn Iran, merely because we are defending the rights of the Palestinian people?
Spiegel: You are talking about Israel, a member of the United Nations that has been recognized worldwide for many decades. What would you do if a majority of the Palestinians voted for a two-state solution, that is, if they recognized Israel’s right to exist?
Ahmadinejad: If that were what they decided, everyone would have to accept this decision…
Spiegel: …and you too would have to recognize Israel, a country that you have said, in the past, you would like to "wipe off the map." Please tell us exactly what you said and what you meant by it.
Ahmadinejad: Let me put it this way, facetiously: Why did the Germans cause so much trouble back then, allowing these problems to arise in the first place? The Zionist regime is the result of World War II. What does any of this have to do with the Palestinian people? Or with the Middle East region? I believe that we must get to the root of the problem. If one doesn’t consider the causes, there can be no solution.
Spiegel: Does getting to the root of the problem mean wiping out Israel?
Ahmadinejad: It means claiming the rights of the Palestinian people. I believe that this is to everyone’s benefit, to that of America, Europe and Germany. But didn’t we want to discuss Germany and German-Iranian relations?
Spiegel: That’s what we are talking about. The fact that you deny Israel’s right to exist is of critical importance when it comes to German-Iranian relations.
Ahmadinejad: Do you believe that the German people support the Zionist regime? Do you believe that a referendum could be held in Germany on this question? If you did allow such a referendum to take place, you would discover that the German people hate the Zionist regime.
Spiegel: We are confident that this is not the case.
Ahmadinejad: I do not believe that the European countries would have been as indulgent if only one-hundredth of the crimes that the Zionist regime has committed in Gaza had happened somewhere in Europe. Why on earth do the European governments support this regime? I have already tried to explain this to you once before…
Spiegel: …when we argued about your denial of the Holocaust three years ago. After the interview, we sent you a film by SPIEGEL TV about the extermination of the Jews in the Third Reich. Did you receive the DVD about the Holocaust, and did you watch it?
Ahmadinejad: Yes, I did receive the DVD. But I did not want to respond to you on this question. I believe that the controversy over the Holocaust is not an issue for the German people. The problem is more deep-seated than that. By the way, thank you once again for coming. You are Germans, and we think very highly of the Germans.
Spiegel: Do you have a message for the German government?
Ahmadinejad: I sent a letter to Ms. Merkel three years ago, in which I emphasized the importance of our historical cultural and economic relations and called upon Germany to exercise more independence.
Spiegel: There will be a presidential election in Iran on June 12. You are considered the favorite. Are you going to win?
Ahmadinejad: Let’s see what happens. Nine weeks is a long time. In our country, there are no winners and, therefore, no real losers.
Spiegel: If you are reelected, will you be the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran to shake the hand of an American president?
Ahmadinejad: What do you mean?
Spiegel: Mr. President, thank you for the interview.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan