During our exclusive "This Week" interview, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran would support a two-state solution in the Middle East if Palestinians voted to approve a peace agreement with Israel.
I pressed him repeatedly on the issue, culminating in this exchange:
Stephanopoulos: "If the Palestinians sign an agreement with Israel, will Iran support it?"
Ahmadinejad: "Whatever decision they take is fine with us. We are not going to determine anything. Whatever decision they take, we will support that. We think that is the right of the Palestinian people, however we fully expect other states to do so as well."
The Iranian president signaled that Iran could accept the existence of Israel, in stark contrast to both his previously reported statement that Israel must be "wiped off the map" and the position of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad: ‘No, No’ to Nuke Talks Without ‘Preconditions’
Ahmadinejad said that he would soon unveil a new "package of proposals for talks" on Iran’s nuclear program, but he refused to commit to negotiations without "preconditions."
"We think that the nuclear issue needs to be resolved in the context of the agency and regulations," he said. "I have no reservations when it comes to talking."
"So you’re ready to talk without preconditions?" I asked.
"No, No," Ahmadinejad replied. "We should just have a clear-cut framework for talks. The agenda should be clear."
Ahmadinejad: ‘I Am Yet to Receive a Response’
Throughout the interview, Ahmadinejad seemed to be caught between a desire to appear open to President Obama’s call for a "new beginning" in U.S.-Iranian relations and a determination not to back down from previous positions.
He seemed miffed President Obama didn’t directly respond to his his message of congratulations on winning the U.S. election.
"I sent a congratulatory message to Mr. Obama. This was a major decision, although the Iranian people were very much dismayed with the conduct of previous U.S. administrations," he said.
"And I was criticized here at home in Iran. Nevertheless, I did that. I am yet to receive a response."
Ahmadinejad Slams Obama For Missing U.N. Racism Conference
Ahmadinejad also criticized Obama for boycotting last week’s U.N. conference on racism, arguing the world’s most biggest problems "have their roots in racial discrimination."
The Obama administration had boycotted the conference citing concerns that the conference would unfairly single out Israel for criticism.
"I don’t think or believe that Mr. Obama supports racism. However, the gentleman should have been there and should have condemned outright racism and racial discrimination," he said.
At the U.N. conference in Geneva on Monday, Ahmadinejad called Israel "the most cruel and repressive racist regime" and said "it is all the more regrettable that a number of Western governments and the United States have committed themselves to defending those racist perpetrators of genocide," prompting dozens of European diplomats in attendance to walk out and the U.N. secretary general to condemn his remarks.
"I was fully expecting Mr. Obama to participate in the Geneva Conference. What issue is more important than racial discrimination?" Ahmadinejad told me.
"The most important problems before us today have their roots in racial discrimination and racism. Hundreds of millions of people fully expect Mr. Obama to take steps to do away completely with racism and racial discrimination, to do something. The United Nations has organized such a conference. I don’t think or believe that Mr. Obama supports racism. However, the gentleman should have been there and should have condemned outright racism and racial discrimination. This is a good possibility for talks and cooperation. We should all cooperate with one another to help racism to go away from the international [stage]."
Ahmadinejad Again Questions Holocaust; Needs Further ‘Studies’
The Iranian president did not back down from his denial of the Holocaust, telling me he believes the genocide of over six million Jews and others is a matter that needs further “studies.”
Ahmadinejad also questioned why American administrations and European governments “blindly” support Israel’s "atrocities.
And he questioned why Palestinians should be made to make amends for "racism" that "happened in Europe" during the Second World War.
Sitting in the garden of the presidential palace in Tehran, I asked the Iranian president, “Why do you insist on questioning the Holocaust even when it’s established as a historical fact and even when politicians here in Iran worry that kind of talk isolates Iran?”
“If this is indeed a historical event," Ahmadinejad said, "why do they want to turn it into a holy thing? And nobody should be allowed to ask any questions about that? Nobody study it, research it, permit it to research it. Why?"
I interjected, telling Ahmadinejad, “It’s the most studied historical event in history.”
“If this is a historically documented event, why do Western states show so much sensitivity towards a historical event?" the Iranian president responded. "Throughout history thousands of events have happened. What is inside this Holocaust which they do not want the lid, so to speak, to be taken off? They do not want the lid to be taken off. I am asking them to permit studies.”
Future of U.S-Iran Relations
During our interview, I showed Ahmadinejad the recent photo of Obama smiling with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and asked him, "Is this a picture that you would like to see, you and President Obama? And what do you think the Iranian people would think of you and President Obama meeting, shaking hands, engaging in conversation? "
Ahmadinejad responded, " Well, we are calling for peace and security for all. We would like international relations to be based on just this and friendship," he said, adding later, "Wherever a hostile relationship turns into friendship, that would make us happy."
Obama has said he wants a new beginning in a relationship with Iran, even sending a message to the Iranian people on the occasion of the Novruz holiday, in which he called Iran a "great civilization."
When asked whether he shares Obama’s vision for a new relationship with Iran, Ahmadinejad said, "You need to appreciate that the American administration, 29 years ago, unilaterally cut its relations with Iran. In the past 29 years, different U.S. administrations have opposed the Iranian people."
"Now they say that we have given up that enmity. That’s fine," he added later, "We have welcomed such comments. But an administration which, up until yesterday, was saying that I’m going to kill you, and today says that I’m not going to kill you, is that sufficient?"