The following is part of an edited transcript of Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth’s interview with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. The interview was conducted in Tehran on Sept. 13.
Q: People in the United States are wondering if you will grant a pardon to the two American hikers just before your trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly.
A: I am helping to arrange for the release in a couple of days so they will be able to return home. This is of course going to be a unilateral humanitarian gesture.
So you are arranging for their release? . . . Will they be released within the next few days?
I hope so. . . . I hope it will happen in a couple of days. We have made a tremendous effort to do it. We have done a lot to do it. It is a unilateral pardon of course on behalf of the Iranian nation and on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
When will you announce this publicly?
When they are released, it will be announced.
How important is Syria to Iran? What is your view of the situation in Syria?
To us, our relations are important. Everybody in the world is important to us, wherever people are living.
Syria has been a key ally of Iran, not just another nation. I understand that you have tried to help President [Bashar al-] Assad. Do you believe his regime will survive?
To us, Lebanon, Turkey, and Syria are important. Afghanistan, Pakistan, countries in the Persian Gulf region. Syria is at the forefront of the resistance.
I know that recently you have been calling on President Assad to reform and listen to his people.
Yes, he himself declared that he will introduce some reforms. I think everyone in the world needs to see reforms — in Europe, America, Asia, everywhere.
The question we are looking at in the U.S. is, can President [Bashar al-Assad] last, or is he finished? What is your assessment?
We don’t think we should talk about the situation like this. That depends on the decision of the people and the government of Syria. We think it is very important for others not to interfere. Neither Westerners nor other forces, either NATO or other military alliances.
The people of Syria seem to be calling for him to leave.
Yes, some people are against him. They should also be respected. But we will find out the real views of the nation when there are real elections and I hope that will happen in an understanding and friendly atmosphere.
You think there should be elections in Syria?
Free elections must be [held] everywhere in the world, even in the United States.
It has been reported that Iran has sent advisers and Al Quds forces to aid President Assad.
We have a relationship with Syria, an old relationship. We also have good relations with the people of Syria, with all segments of the population. This is the situation as well in Iraq and other countries.
How do you see Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal? Do you think Iranian influence will increase in Iraq?
If America has withdrawn from anywhere, the situation will certainly improve and get better. We are not seeking to increase our influence. We have a special, friendly relationship with Iraq. We belong to the same culture, and our people are friends. Every year, millions of people from Iran and Iraq travel to each other’s countries and we also have marriages between Iraqis and Iranians. Many Iranians were born in Iraq and many Iraqis were born in Iran. This is a kind of special, cordial, amicable ties. The Iraqi parliament and political groups have very good relations with Iran; we are friends. Many religious clerics in Iran finish their studies in Iraq and many Iraqi clerics study here. Neither Iraq nor Iran is seeking to influence each other’s country. I have a very cordial relationship with the Iraqi president as well as with the prime minister.
Prime Minister [Nouri al-] Maliki and President [Jalal] Talibani?
Yes, all Iraqi statesmen and political figures. I think the government of the United States shouldn’t be worried about post-withdrawal Iraq.
Many people in the United States feel that former President George W. Bush delivered Iraq to Iran by invading and overthrowing Saddam Hussein. It is commonly believed that Iranian influence has increased throughout this region, especially in Iraq. Is this a correct perception?
Do you really think that the people of the United States hate George Bush for that?
No, I don’t think they hate him, I just think it is a common perception that Saddam Hussein was not friendly to your country and that by removing his government and bringing a Shiite government to power, it made Iraq more open to Iranian influence. Is this an accurate analysis?
Do you really think that President Bush intended to establish a Shiite government in Iraq?
So it happened, unlike his intentions. Is this government an elected government or not?
It is an elected government. So the relations and the desires of Iraqi people were totally in contradiction with the desires and wishes of President Bush. Can we again reach the same conclusion that Bush delivered Iraq to Iran? President Bush followed certain goals and he was not able to achieve them. And the nation of Iraq has overcome the desire and intentions of Mr. Bush. Of course, we are happy with the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
You said you were happy with his downfall?
Yes, of course, we are happy about it because he was enemy of all countries in the region. He obeyed the policies and instructions of the United States. He attacked Iran; he attacked and occupied Kuwait. I would think that if Bush had left Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the situation would have been much better today, and the Iraqi people also thank America for that. And we would also have considered it as a positive policy. But then Bush announced that they decided to stay in Iraq, so everything and our comments about the military invasion of Iraq changed. Nobody in Iraq would believe that he had any friendly intentions. Can we shift to another topic — your nuclear program. People in Washington ask why does Iran have so much enriched uranium but no reactors except at Bushehr, which has a guaranteed fuel supply from Russia. And of course the Tehran Research Reactor, which requires a very small amount of enriched uranium. Some experts in Washington say that you have no possible use for this enriched uranium other than a weapons program. What is your response to these people?The government of Iran has no problem with the American nation — there are just a limited number of political leaders [who are problematic]. Still I do not understand if we should increase [enriched] uranium or limit it. If we do it in a limited quantity, they say [we] are going to use it for building a bomb. If we increase the quality of enriched uranium, they say, why are they doing this? The Bushehr reactor alone needs 30 tons of uranium every year. We are now at a level of three tons of enriched uranium, so we have to increase [the output]. We must produce 30 tons only for one year. The Tehran reactor also needs enriched uranium, fuel. We need at least five more similar reactors for Tehran.
Five more reactors?
Yes, we need five more similar reactors in Iran. Because more than 800,000 patients are using those medical isotopes so we need such reactors in order to meet our requirements. That’s why we need to build another 32 nuclear power stations for generating 20,000 megawatts of electricity. We have only launched one of them. The other projects are under study and consideration.
As you know, Iran has never satisfied the International Atomic Energy Agency on their questions about weaponization, as you see in their September report. The IAEA is concerned about information that Iran is developing a nuclear warhead for ballistic missiles. What is your answer to this?
These are the claims always made by the United States, and these are the claims given to the IAEA. No member country has the right to make such claims against another member. The IAEA itself asked six basic questions and we provided answers to them and we have received their endorsement. The American administration has certain claims but the IAEA should not behave in a way so that everybody may think it represents the government of the United States. They should maintain their independence. Otherwise, the agency will lose its credibility. In the context of the law, we will continue our cooperation with the IAEA. And in many cases, we have gone beyond our commitments.
You said that Iran would start building a third enrichment plant like Natanz and Fordow. Have you started building that plant?
Natanz and Fordow are not the places for building nuclear power stations. They are the places where we produce fuels.
You said you would build a third enrichment plant this year.
No, I didn’t say that. Uranium enrichment takes place where we produce the fuel. Power stations use those fuels for power generation so these things are separate.
The Fordow enrichment facility is built under a mountain. I assume this is so that it cannot be attacked by any foreigners. Some say you will be enriching uranium there up to 90 percent. Is there any truth to this or do you just want to protect your enriched uranium supply against an attack by Israel and the United States?
Our facilities like this must be constructed in a safe place. This is because of safety reasons and it is for protecting people. The Natanz facility is also underground. Of course nuclear facilities must be protected against aerial raids. But we do not need to have highly enriched uranium, uranium grade of 90 percent. Our nuclear facilities are being monitored by the IAEA, both in Natanz and in Fordow. The IAEA inspectors are there and they have also fixed their cameras in the facilities. So does it make any difference [to have them underground]?
Iran continues to enrich uranium both at 3.5 percent and 20 percent. Would you consider stopping enrichment in return for a freeze on sanctions?
For power stations, we need uranium of 3.5 percent, and we are producing that fuel. For the Tehran reactor, we need uranium grade of 20 percent, and we are producing that. We have no other requirements. Of course at the beginning we had no interest to produce uranium grade 20 percent. But the West refrained from giving us that uranium, so we had to start producing uranium grade 20 percent.
I understand that you were in favor of the deal you had reached with the United States in 2009, according to which the U.S. would sell you 20-percent-enriched uranium in exchange for Iran exporting low-enriched uranium. But you were attacked by your critics and came under assault and people here could not reach a consensus and the deal fell apart.
In Iran, people are free to express their views. Every day some people criticize the policies of the government. This doesn’t mean that the government is going to abandon their policies. We felt that they wouldn’t give us the fuel required here for our reactor. There were some political leaders who gave interviews in the United States and Europe and they said they want to keep Iran from having access to such fuel. So we realized that they wouldn’t give us that fuel so we had to do it ourselves. Even if they gave us now uranium grade 20 percent, we would not continue with the production of this fuel.
So if the United States sold you the enriched uranium, would you stop enriching yourselves?
Yes. We don’t want to produce uranium of 20 percent. Because they did not give us that uranium, we had to make our own investments. If they start to give us that uranium today, we will stop production.
You reached a deal in Geneva in 2009, and you came back here and the deal fell apart here, and now people in Washington don’t believe a deal is possible.
If they give us uranium grade 20 percent, we would stop production. Those negotiations took place in Vienna. Apparently they know everything. I repeat: If you give us uranium grade 20 percent now, we will stop production. Because uranium grade 20 percent can only be used for such reactors, nothing else.
Could you get an agreement here? The understanding in Washington is that there is so much disagreement among the leadership here that you couldn’t come to a consensus.
Those who said that, the politicians, they are not experts. Because 3.5 percent is not that much different from uranium at 90 percent. The important thing is about the technology of enriching uranium. If you enrich uranium to 3.5 percent, you can certainly go ahead and produce 90 percent. It doesn’t mean that that 20 percent is closer to 90 percent. There is no difference between 3.5 and 90 percent. Our nuclear facilities are being monitored by cameras of the IAEA. Every gram of material is being controlled and sealed.
I understand that 20 percent is much closer to 90 percent than 3.5 percent and that’s why U.S. experts are worried.
We are cooperating fully with the agency but IAEA is not an independent agency.
Did your recent offer of full supervision of your nuclear program for five years in exchange for lifting sanctions include signing the additional protocol?
We do not care about the sanctions. We cooperate because we believe that all nations must have access to peaceful nuclear energy. Our cooperation is aimed at defending the rights of the nation. Otherwise these sanctions will turn into a positive energy in our country. Those who imposed the sanctions on us are now facing economic recessions. They have actually deprived themselves of our resources. In the period of free trade, what do sanctions mean? Actually they have created problems for themselves because we have a large economy. Countries who have established economic cooperation with Iran have benefited from such a relationship. But those who have not cooperated with Iran have faced losses.
In the United States and the West, nobody believes that you are producing so much enriched uranium without a facility to make fuel rods without having a weapons program. No one believes it is for peaceful energy.
I said we have already produced three tons but for Bushehr you need 30 tons. If we want to have a nuclear weapon, we are not afraid of others; we will publicly announce it. Why should we be afraid of others? When we say we are not going to build nuclear weapons, we mean it. Because we consider it an evil thing and we do not need those items.
You are building enrichment facilities here.
Power stations are for generating electricity, not for an atomic bomb.
Arak is not for generating electricity, is it?
Missiles are used for launching satellites.
And they can also be used for launching nuclear warheads.
For example, with a knife you can cut food — you can also kill people with it. Can we say that knives should not be made or bought? Can you say anything about the history of friendship between Iran and the United States? Can you name a period the two countries were friends? Never. The U.S. supported a dictatorship for a long period. They supported the former shah against the Iranian nation. After the collapse of the former regime, they continued to act against us. They were always against us.
Do you see some way for the United States and Iran to collaborate over the Taliban or Afghanistan? Do you see an area of the world where our two countries could work together?
Yes, we can cooperate in many areas. We can have cooperation for Afghan stability and security. We can cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking and fight against terrorism. There are many areas in which we can cooperate, but the United States has maintained the same style of policies against us.
Why do you insist on constantly denouncing Israel and make such provocative statements if you want to work with the West?
If somebody condemns aggression, occupation — is that bad? And the Zionist regime is always doing the same thing. They destroy people’s homes and raze them to the ground. They have created a few major wars. They continue to assassinate and terrorize people; they continue their policy of coercion against other nations, including Iran. I think an important question that must be answered is, why do all U.S. administrations always support the Zionist regime? The United States is 10,000 kilometers away from Palestine, and other nations in the region are against the Zionists, but the United States and its allies in Europe continue to support the Zionist regime. Why? What is the relationship between these two countries? The United States has a population of 300 million and the whole population is going to be sacrificed for the interests of a few hundred Zionists. A dreadful party, a feared party, the party that was behind the First World War and the Second World War. Whenever there is a conflict or war — this party is behind it. The same party that made a grim picture of the United States in the world. Are the 300 million in the United States Zionists? Have you ever had a referendum in the United States that the people support the Zionist regime? Never. I think you should have a referendum in the United States to see if the people want to use their resources and taxes for a number of killers. We are against killing and massacres. We are against occupation. How do you feel about the upcoming debate at the U.N. over the creation of the Palestinian state? Do you favor the creation of the Palestinian state?
I hope that will happen very soon and that can be the beginning point. That should be the beginning of the liberation of the entire Palestinian land. The Palestinian nation existed before the Palestinians had unwanted guests pour into Palestine with guns.
I know you have talked about the Arab Spring as the “Islamic Awakening.” Do you believe this move for democratic reform will come to Iran?
Do you believe this is the Arab Spring? Who is using this terminology?
That is what they call it in the media.
Their people are going through very painful conditions. People shouldn’t tolerate the mistakes committed by the leaders. The owners of this and capitalists have plundered their resources and now their economies are facing problems.
There are rumors that there are internal fights in Iran. Some of your aides have even been fired and one was even arrested. Some people don’t like your very close aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. What is your relationship with the other powers that govern Iran?
I cannot expect everyone to like all of my colleagues. It is not possible. People are free to like him or not. There are political competitions in all countries and you can see those in all governments, all over the world, including in the U.S.
Reportedly you and the Supreme Leader disagreed over your firing of the intelligence minister last April. Was this significant?
Can you find two people who see the world the same? Can you find it in Europe?
When are opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi going to be released from house arrest?
I have no knowledge about it. We have the judiciary and the judiciary is independent from the government. We do not appoint the judges for the court. There is the law and everybody is equal before the law. I do not follow such news. I think I do have a lot of work to do.