David Ignatius: Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Israeli threats, nuclear program and Syria

David Ignatius
Opinion writer September 23, 2012

Iran may be on the firing line, but President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was as calmly combative as ever Sunday, dismissing Israel’s military threats and predicting that nothing will happen in the nuclear talks until after the U.S. presidential elections.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

In an interview on the eve of his visit to the United Nations, Ahmadinejad seemed unfazed by recent months of speculation about bombing strikes or by the precarious state of Tehran’s allies in Damascus. Instead, he talked often about politics — including a reference to what he saw as the war-weariness of the American public.

The hour-long conversation was a case study in the bob-and-weave style, and unrelenting self-confidence, that has made Ahmadinejad a survivor in Iranian politics and a particular nemesis for critics in the U.S., Israel and the Arab world. While he expressed a willingness to negotiate on a range of subjects, he retreated into generalities when pressed about details. His tone was calm, even in discussing a potential clash with Israel.

“We, generally speaking, do not take very seriously the issue of the Zionists and the possible dangers emanating from them,” he said early in the interview. “Of course, they would love to find a way for their own salvation by making a lot of noise and to raise stakes in order to save themselves. But I do not believe they will succeed.”

Asked if he thought Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was bluffing in his threats to strike Iranian nuclear facilities, the Iranian president said he agreed with that view and asserted that this analysis was a “common consensus.”

Ahmadinejad’s bland self-assurance is partly a matter of style, for no politician ever wants to display weakness before his adversaries. But in this third interview I’ve had with the Iranian president, I had the sense that he genuinely believes the world is going Iran’s way. He sees an America that is facing reversals across the Muslim world — in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and most recently, in dealing with the Arab uprisings. Close U.S. allies such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak are gone, and Ahmadinejad is still standing.

In discussing Iran’s negotiations with the international group known as the P5+1, Ahmadinejad said Iran was willing to make a deal to limit its stockpile of enriched uranium. But he implied that the Obama administration wants to slow the negotiations down until after the November election, to avoid bargaining concessions that might embarrass the president.

“We have always been ready and we are ready” to make a deal that will address the P5+1’s concerns, he said. “But experience has shown that important and key decisions are not made in the U.S. leading up to national elections.”

Ahmadinejad observed at another point in the conversation: “I do believe that some conversations and key issues must be talked about again once we come out of the other end of the political election atmosphere in the United States.”

In talking about America, Ahmadinejad several times referred to a country that, in his words, is tired of “back-breaking expenses” of foreign wars overseas and where public opinion is trending against Israel. He didn’t cite evidence for these views.

“Will the people of the U.S. accept meddling and intervention in the affairs of others?” he mused at one point, before answering his own question. “I don’t believe so. I believe the people of the U.S. are peace-loving people.”

The Iranian president said Iran is eager to help broker deals to end fighting in Syria and Afghanistan. On Syria, which has been Iran’s Arab ally, he said he supported transitional elections for a new government. Asked if President Bashar al-Assad should be a candidate, he answered this was for Syrians to decide. It was hard to read whether this represented any step away from Assad.

On Afghanistan, the Iranian leader claimed he had no knowledge of a February 2011 invitation to Tehran for U.S. special representative Marc Grossman. But he in effect renewed the offer, saying that after the U.S. elections, Iran was ready for direct discussions with the United States about how to stabilize Afghanistan.

The most intractable subject in any conversation with Ahmadinejad is Israel, and Sunday’s discussion was no different. Pressed why he continued to make comments that Israelis regarded as hate speech, he parried back with a series of questions about Israeli occupation of Arab territory. Asked to affirm Israel’s existence, he wouldn’t.

Ahmadinejad’s term as president will end next year, so in theory this is probably his last visit to New York as Iran’s leader. But as he spoke Sunday, it seemed unlikely that this veteran counter-puncher will disappear from Iranian politics, or the world stage, without a fight.

davidignatius@washpost.com

A complete transcript of the interview with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is available here.

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