CUNY Distinguished Professor of History at Baruch College, City University of New York. He is the author of several books on Iran, most recently, A History of Modern Iran.
In part one of an interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talks about the threat of a US attack on Iran and responds to international criticism of Iran’s human rights record. We also get reaction from CUNY Professor Ervand Abrahamian, an Iran expert and author of several books on Iran. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the United Nations General Assembly this week, while the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, is meeting in Vienna to discuss Iran’s alleged nuclear program. An IAEA report earlier this month criticized Iran for failing to fully respond to questions about its nuclear activities.
The European Union told the IAEA Wednesday that it believes Iran is moving closer to being able to arm a nuclear warhead. Iran could face a fourth set of Security Council sanctions over its nuclear activities, but this week Russia has refused to meet with the US on this issue.
The Iranian president refuted the IAEA’s charges in his speech to the General Assembly and accused the agency of succumbing to political pressure. He also welcomed talks with the United States if it cuts back threats to use military force against Iran.
AMY GOODMAN: As with every visit of the Iranian president to New York, some groups protested outside the United Nations. But this year, President Ahmadinejad also met with a large delegation of American peace activists concerned with the escalating possibility of war with Iran.
Well, yesterday, just before their meeting, Juan Gonzalez and I sat down with the Iranian president at his hotel, blocks from the UN, for a wide-ranging discussion about US-Iran relations, Iran’s nuclear program, threat of war with the US, the Israel-Palestine conflict, human rights in Iran and much more.
Today, part one of our interview with the Iranian president.
AMY GOODMAN: Welcome to Democracy Now!, President Ahmadinejad. You’ve come to the United States. What is your message to people in the United States and to the world community at the UN?
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] In the name of God, the compassion of the Merciful, the president started by reciting verses from the Holy Quran in Arabic.
Hello. Hello to the people of America. The message from the nation and people of Iran is one of peace, tranquility and brotherhood. We believe that viable peace and security can happen when it is based on justice and piety and purity. Otherwise, no peace will occur.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Mr. President, you’re faced now in Iran with American soldiers in Iraq to your west, with American soldiers and NATO troops to your east in Afghanistan, and with Blackwater, the notorious military contractor, training the military in Azerbaijan, another neighbor of yours. What is the effect on your country of this enormous presence of American forces around Iran and the impact of these wars on your own population?
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] It’s quite natural that when there are wars around your borders, it brings about negative repercussions for the entire region. These days, insecurity cannot be bordered; it just extends beyond boundaries. In the past two years, we had several cases of bomb explosions in southern towns in Iran carried out by people who were supervised by the occupying forces in our neighborhood. And in Afghanistan, following the presence of NATO troops, the production of illicit drugs has multiplied. It’s natural that it basically places pressure on Iran, including costly ones in order to fight the flow of illicit drugs.
We believe the people in the region are able to establish security themselves, on their own, so there is no need for foreigners and external forces, because these external forces have not helped the security of the region.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you see them as a threat to you?
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] Well, it’s natural that when there is insecurity, it threatens everyone.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to turn for a moment to your domestic policies and law enforcement in your country. Human Rights Watch, which has often criticized the legal system in the United States, says that, under your presidency, there has been a great expansion in the scope and the number of individuals and activities persecuted by the government. They say that you’ve jailed teachers who are fighting for wages and better pensions, students and activists working for reform, and other labor leaders, like Mansour Ossanlou from the bus workers’ union. What is your response to these criticisms of your policies?
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] I think that the human rights situation in Iran is relatively a good one, when compared to the United States and other countries. Of course, when we look at the ideals that are dear to us, we understand that we still need to do a lot, because we seek divine and religious ideals and revolutionary ones. But when we compare ourselves with some European countries and the United States, we feel we’re in a much better place.
A large part of the information that these groups receive come from criticisms coming from groups that oppose the government. If you look at it, we have elections in Iran every year. And the propaganda is always around, too. But they’re not always true. Groups accuse one another.
But within the region and compared to the United States, we have the smallest number of prisoners, because in Iran, in general, there is not so much inclination to imprison people. We’re actually looking at our existing laws right now to see how we can eliminate most prisons around the country. So, you can see that people in Iran like each other. They live coexistently and like the government, too. This news is more important to these groups, not so much for the Iranian people. You have to remember, we have over 70 million people in our country, and we have laws. Some people might violate it, and then, according to the law, the judiciary takes charge. And this happens everywhere. What really matters is that in the end there are the least amount of such violations of the law in Iran, the least number.
So, I think the interpretation of these events is a wrong one. The relationship between the people and the government in Iran is actually a very close one. And criticizing the government is absolutely free for all. That’s exactly why everyone says what they want. There’s really no restrictions. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everything you hear is always true. And the government doesn’t really respond to it, either. It’s just free.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Let me ask you in particular about the question of the execution of juveniles. My understanding is that Iran is one of only five or six nations in the world that still execute juveniles convicted of capital offenses and that you — by far, you execute the most. I think twenty-six of the last thirty-two juveniles executed in the world were executed in Iran. How is this a reflection of the — of a state guided by religious principles, to execute young people?
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] Firstly, nobody is executed under the age of eighteen in Iran. This is the first point. And then, please pay attention to the fact that the legal age in Iran is different from yours. It’s not eighteen and doesn’t have to be eighteen everywhere. So, it’s different in different countries. I’ll ask you, if a person who happens to be seventeen years old and nine months kills one of your relatives, will you just overlook that?
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll continue our interview with Iranian President Ahmadinejad after break.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to our interview with the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, recently the Bush administration agreed to provide Israel with many new bunker buster bombs that people speculate might be used against Iran. Your reaction to this decision by the Bush administration? And do you — and there have been numerous reports in the American press of the Bush administration seeking to finance a secret war against Iran right now.
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] Well, we actually think that the US administration and some other governments have equipped the Zionist regime with the nuclear warhead for those bombs, too. So, what are we to tell the American administration, a government that seeks a solution to all problems through war? Their logic is one of war. In the past twenty years, Americans’ military expenditures have multiplied. So I think the problem should be resolved somewhere else, meaning the people of America themselves must decide about their future. Do they like new wars to be waged in their names that kill nations or have their money spent on warfare? So I think that’s where the problem can be addressed.
AMY GOODMAN: The investigative reporter Seymour Hersh said the Bush administration held a meeting in Vice President Cheney’s office to discuss ways to provoke a war with Iran. Hersh said it was considered possibly a meeting to stage an incident, that it would appear that Iranian boats had attacked US forces in the Straits of Hormuz. Do you have any evidence of this?
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] Well, you have to pay attention to find that a lot of this kind of stuff is published out there. There’s no need for us to react to it.
Of course, Mr. Bush is very interested to start a new war. But he confronts two big barriers. One is the incapability in terms of maneuverability and operationally. Iran is a very big country, a very powerful country, very much capable of defending itself. The second barrier is the United States itself. We think there are enough wise people in this country to prevent the unreasonable actions by the administration. Even among the military commanders here, there are many people with wisdom who will stop a new war. I think the beginning or the starting a new war will mark the beginning of the end of the United States of America. Many people can understand that.
But I also think that Mr. Bush’s administration is coming to an end. Mr. Bush still has one other chance to make up for the mistakes he did in the past. He has no time to add to those list of mistakes. He can only make up for them. And that’s a very good opportunity to have. So, I would advise him to take advantage of this opportunity, so that at least while you’re in power, you do a couple — few good acts, as well. It’s better than to end one’s work with a report card of failures and of abhorrent acts. We’re willing to help him in doing good. We’ll be very happy.
AMY GOODMAN: And your nuclear program?
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: [translated] Our time seems to be over, but our nuclear program is peaceful. It’s very transparent for everyone to see.
Your media is a progressive one. Let me just say a sentence here.
I think that the time for the atomic bomb has reached an end. Don’t you feel that yourself? What will determine the future is culture, it’s the power of thought. Was the atomic bomb able to save the former Soviet Union from collapsing? Was it able to give victory to the Zionist regime of confronting the Palestinians? Was it able to resolve America’s or US problems in Iraq and Afghanistan? Naturally, its usage has come to an end.
It’s very wrong to spend people’s money building new atomic bombs. This money should be spent on creating welfare, prosperity, health, education, employment, and as aid that should be distributed among others’ countries, to destroy the reasons for war and for insecurity and terrorism. Rest assured, whoever who seeks to have atomic bombs more and more is just politically backward. And those who have these arsenals and are busy making new generations of those bombs are even more backward.
I think a disloyalty has occurred to the human community. Atomic energy power is a clean one. It’s a renewable one, and it is a positive [inaudible]. Up to this day, we’ve identified at least sixteen positive applications from it. We’re already aware that the extent to which we have used fossil fuels has imbalanced the climate of the world, brought about a lot of pollution, as well as a lot of diseases, as a result. So what’s wrong with all countries having peaceful nuclear power and enjoying the benefits of this energy? It’s actually a power that is constructively environmental. All those nuclear powers have come and said, well, having nuclear energy is the equivalent of having an atomic bomb pretty much — just a big lie.
AMY GOODMAN: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Tomorrow, part two of our conversation. But right now, we’re joined by Ervand Abrahamian. He’s an Iran expert, CUNY Distinguished Professor of History at Baruch College, City University of New York, author of a number of books, most recently, A History of Modern Iran.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about both what the Iranian president said here and his overall trip? Was it a different message this year?
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: No, it’s very much the same complacency, that, you know, everything’s fine. There may be some problems in Iran and in foreign relations, but overall, Iran is confident and is — basically the mantra of the administration in Iran is that no one in their right senses would think of attacking Iran. And I think the Iranian government’s whole policy is based on that. I wish I was as confident as Ahmadinejad is.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And his dismissing of the situation, the human rights situation, in Iran, basically ascribing any arrests to some lawbreakers? Your sense of what is the human rights situation right there?
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Well, I mean, he basically changed the question and talked about, you know, the probably two million prisoners in America, which is of course true, but it certainly changes the topic of the discussion.
Now, in Iran, you can be imprisoned for the talking of abolishing capital punishment. In fact, that’s considered blasphemy, and academics have been charged with capital offense for actually questioning capital punishment. So, he doesn’t really want to address those issues. And there have been major purges in the university recently, and of course the plight of the newspapers is very dramatic. I mean, mass newspapers have been closed down. Editors have been brought before courts, and so on. So, I would find that the human rights situation — I would agree with the Human Rights Watch, that things are bad.
But I would like to stress that human rights organizations in Iran don’t want that issue involved with the US-Iran relations, because every time the US steps in and tries to champion a question of human rights, I think that backfires in Iran, because most Iranians know the history of US involvement in Iran, and they feel it’s hypocrisy when the Bush administration talks about human rights. So they would like to distance themselves. And Shirin Ebadi, of course, the Nobel Peace Prize, has made it quite clear that she doesn’t want this championing by the United States of the human rights issue.
AMY GOODMAN: Big protest outside. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the Israel Project, UJ Federation of New York, United Jewish Communities protested. They invited Hillary Clinton. She was going to speak. But they invited — then they invited Governor Palin, and so then Clinton pulled out, so they had had to disinvite Palin. And then you had the peace movement inside, meeting with Ahmadinejad.
ERVAND ABRAHAMIAN: Yes, I think — I mean, the demonstrations outside are basically pushing for some sort of air strikes on the premise that Iran is an imminent threat and trying to build up that sort of pressure on the administration. And clearly, I think the Obama administration would not want to do that, but they would probably have a fair good hearing in the — if there was a McCain administration.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. Part two of our conversation tomorrow. We talk about the Israel-Palestine issue, we talk about the treatment of gay men and lesbians in Iran, and we talk about how the Iraq war has affected Iran with the Iranian president