I interviewed Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday. Here is the full transcript of the interview.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. President, thank you for joining us again. I want to begin with a topic that– many Americans are interested, of course the Americans, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer. Last week you raised a lot of hopes here in the United States saying they would be released in a couple of days as a humanitarian gesture. Many expected them to come back here with you. Yet they’re still imprisoned in Iran. Why?
AHMADINEJAD: In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful, I do wish to greet all of your viewers and wish good health for all nations and all humanity and wish for their happiness. I do hope that all nations can live in complete security and welfare. Yes, I did say within the next few days and I still say the same thing. And God willing they will be released very soon.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet we, it seems that there seems to be from the outside a power struggle inside Iran. The members of the judiciary are determined to embarrass you and prevent the release of those hikers while you’re here in the United States.
AHMADINEJAD: Is it their release which is important to you? Or what is going on in Iran? There is no problem. There is a judicial process that has to be completed and hopefully it will be, God willing.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Guaranteed they will come to the United States?
AHMADINEJAD: Do I have to provide a guarantee?
STEPHANOPOULOS: I will — I think a lot of Americans would like that guarantee.
AHMADINEJAD: Yes, whatever we say.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Can you not guarantee?
AHMADINEJAD: Yes, we act upon whatever we say. And if we don’t want to act, we won’t say it. We didn’t make this decision under pressure. It is a humanitarian decision. Although, a lot of people are in prison in American prisons, in the United States, in Europe, on ships unfortunately there are a lot of people without having had the opportunity of a fair trial. And there are some Iranians who are imprisoned in the United States and did not have the right to a full judicial review. But when we said we will release them, we will release them, as a humanitarian gesture.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Let me ask you about this remarkable turn of events across the Middle East in the Arab world since we last spoke. It’s been called the Arab Spring here. We’ve seen people take to the streets, Hosni Mubarak out of power in Egypt, leader of Tunisia out of power, Ghadafi on the run, Bashar Assad in Syria facing great pressure. What do you make of this and what has Iran learned from it?
AHMADINEJAD: We believe that freedom, justice and the right to choose belongs to all people. It’s a human right. But the question is the previous president of Egypt — which governments was he being supported by? And the same goes for the rest.
Show me one dictatorship in the world that has not been supported by the United States government or some European governments. It almost doesn’t exist. I think a dictatorship and hegemony are part of the same phenomenon. And this is against the rights of human beings. And this must change.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet the protests in Iran in June of 2009 were even larger than many in the Middle East– the protestors faced a quite violent crackdown. And at the time you referred to the protestors as “dust and dirt.” Do you regret using that term?
AHMADINEJAD: Don’t you distinguish between those protestors who have something to say and who have some demands, and those who set buildings on fire? Is expressing opinions the same as clashing with the police? It isn’t. Those who protested, they expressed their demands, and the legal authorities reviewed them and responded. But if someone attacks people’s cars, what do you call that?
STEPHANOPOULOS: Many did, many faced violence before they could go through due process.
AHMADINEJAD: That’s not so. That’s not so. Certain demands were made, certain claims were made. The judicial authorities reviewed them. They responded to all of them. And there were some other than ordinary people who attacked buildings in an organized fashion and set them on fire. They had nothing to do with each other at all. They are two separate issues. Anywhere in the world where people disobey the law, there is a judge, there is a court. I’m not passing any judgment on people because I’m not a judge. But I think anywhere in the world the law rules. And the law is the ultimate source and everyone has to obey the law.
STEPHANOPOULOS: One of the Middle East leaders who has not been supported by the United States is Bashar al-Assad who is facing tremendous pressure right now, cracked down violently on his citizens, more than 2,600 killed this year. Earlier this month you had — you called on President Assad to refrain from violence. Now U.S. officials believe that his days in power are numbered. Do you agree?
AHMADINEJAD: Our viewpoint is quite clear. We say justice, choice and freedom is everyone’s right. Governments and nations should sit together and resolve issues. Reforms must be reached through understanding. But others should not interfere. NATO’s interference, the United States’ interference does not solve the problem. Besides, there are contradictions in the behavior of the United States government. Its behavior in Yemen is completely different from its behavior in other Arab countries like Bahrain or Syria. You have to let nations choose for themselves. Any foreign interference, sending arms, threatening, is against the interest of nations. We do not agree with that. We recommend the same thing. We make an effort to have discussions with both sides: with the governments and those against the governments. And to negotiate with them. And to make an effort to bring their viewpoints closer together. And find a solution.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yet the violence continues in Syria, as you know. President Assad’s forces continue to crack down on the protests. Should he stop?
AHMADINEJAD: I wouldn’t put it in those words. In a lot of places people are being killed right now. NATO’s bombing in Libya is killing whom? Americans or Libyans?
STEPHANOPOULOS: But I’m asking about Syria.
AHMADINEJAD: Everyone who’s being killed is from Libya. In Syria — in Syria both the security forces and the protestors are Syrian. Any of them who is being killed is Syrian and that’s bad. It’s also bad in Libya. They shouldn’t kill each other, they should sit down and talk and solve their problems. And nobody should interfere. And the American President does not have the right to call someone and say “leave or stay on.” Or to threaten some government or nation. These are the problems. If it were not for the American interference, or the interference of its friends, I think the problems would be solved more easily.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you think President Assad’s hold on power in Syria is secure?
AHMADINEJAD: The interpretation you’re making is a negative interpretation. Remember the same thing may happen in the near future for the American government. Just like in England, the protests by the people, it was crushed. Some people were killed. A large number were wounded. Why didn’t anyone take any positions? We are not foretelling the future, we’re making an effort to reform the future. We make an effort for everybody to be friends and the fundamental rights of human beings to be respected. But we do not interfere in other people’s affairs. We think that some groups close to the United States should not send arms to Syria. These arms do not help. It makes it worse. If the US government imagines that with the worsening of the clashes in the Middle East the future will be in the interests of American dominance, they’re making a mistake. I’m talking as an informed person. We live in the Middle East. The movement that has started will not like the American dominance. Therefore it’s better if the US government does not interfere. And to help understanding and friendship and help settlement between groups and finding a proper and just solution. But if it interferes unilaterally, in a few years the conditions will become very bad for the US.
STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know many in the United States government differ — the Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said earlier this year that it’s just a matter of time before this revolution hits Iran. What did you make of that?
AHMADINEJAD: Does he have any plans for any interference in Iran or does he see foresee the future?
STEPHANOPOULOS: I think it was–
AHMADINEJAD: If he has a plan, let him announce it so that we’ll learn it as well. But if he’s foreseeing the future, he should let us know how he’s doing it. Does this mean the US has some plan for the Middle East?
STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that your fear?
AHMADINEJAD: No, I have no fear. We don’t have any fear of the US. Why should we fear the US? But I want– I want to be clear. The US has been against us for 50 to 60 years. We aren’t worried about that. The US government has used any power it had against us. But my question is this: Is this– does the Secretary of Defense wish to inform us of plans that have been drawn up or he’s just talking?
If he’s just saying something, that’s not important, a lot of people talk. It’s not worth being analyzed. But if he has some plans, and he’s announcing it, I would be telling him you’re making a mistake and the response will be very resolute.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We’ll bring that question to him. Let me as you about a topic facing the United Nations this week. The Palestinian authority will seek recognition before the United Nations Security Council and the United Nations General Assembly as a state. Do you support that move?
AHMADINEJAD: Certainly, Palestine was a country, that is nothing new. Prior to the United Nations even being formed, Palestine was a country. But the right of the Palestinian people were trampled and unfortunately international organizations contributed to those rights being trampled.
We certainly do see the recognition of a Palestinian government as the first step toward the freedom of the whole Palestine. We have always been on the side of the Palestinian nation. We have had relations with the Palestinian government. They have an embassy in Iran.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So you support their efforts in the United Nations. As you know, the Palestinian authority says that passage of this resolution will also imply recognition of Israel, which is why Hamas has opposed these efforts. Do you agree with the Palestinian Authority’s contention that recognition of Palestine also involves recognition of the state of Israel?
AHMADINEJAD: Why does it have to be like that? The people of Palestine —
STEPHANOPOULOS: But that’s what they’ve said it is.
AHMADINEJAD: I’m sorry, George– what– would you repeat what you just said very quickly?
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yeah, that’s what they said. The Palestinian authority says that recognition of Palestine by the United Nations will also imply recognition of Israel. That’s their interpretation.
AHMADINEJAD: Why? Why does it have to be like that? We do recognize Palestine— but we will not recognize the Zionist regime. Why do they set conditions when some nation wants to be independent in its own homeland – it has to recognize an occupying and illegal government? Is that fair? If the Palestinian nation has any rights, it has the rights to have any position. If the US government is right and it’s honest about recognizing the right of the Palestinian people, it has to allow for a Palestinian government to be formed. And then the Palestinian government has the right to take positions. It’s the right of Palestine to recognize another nation or not. Not a condition of the independence of the Palestinian nation. That’s unfair. That’s being imposed.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But they’re– they’re saying that if the resolution passes that will mean recognition of Israel as well. That’s the Palestinian’s position.
AHMADINEJAD: I don’t know if there is such a law that says if a nation wants to form a government it has to recognize another group. Is there such a law? Or is it a demand? If it’s a demand by the US government, it has to allow the Palestinian government once it’s formed to choose freely. Or, it’s something that’s being imposed. If it’s being imposed, the problem will not be solved in the region. Because nation’s have to choose freely. When it’s imposed, the root stays there, and the problems will continue later on.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You’ve mentioned the longstanding tension between the United States and Iran. There’s been some discussion– here in the United States about one tool to reduce that tension, the possibility of setting up a hotline between the United States and Iran– that could be used to make sure that no incident escalates out of control and that we don’t stumble into a conflict. Would you support establishing that kind of a hotline between Iran and the United States?
AHMADINEJAD: We have founded our foreign policy on relations. We didn’t cut off our relations with the US government. The US government cut off relations with us unilaterally. We don’t think there are any reasons for tensions and we have always said under fair and respectful conditions, we’re ready for talks. We have always welcomed relations between nations. Recently there was a religious group in Iran, and I met with them. I proposed a joint committee between religious leaders to be formed so they could have discussions. So that ideas come together. That’s not a bad thing, that’s a good thing.
STEPHANOPOULOS: How about this military hotline? Would you support something like that?
AHMADINEJAD: You mean for our military forces to be in touch?
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes, just in case — you know, the idea would be much like what the United States had with the former Soviet Union during the days of the Cold War, a direct line between the leaders or between the militaries so that if there were some kind of a conflict at sea they would have direct communication to avoid the situation from escalating out of control.
AHMADINEJAD: Let me see if I understood you correctly. You mean the US is in a Cold War with Iran? Is that what you mean?
STEPHANOPOULOS: No, I– I was just using it as the analogy just to try to get you to explain what kind of a communication I’m talking about, that’s the closest I could come up with.
AHMADINEJAD: So there is no war. Why should there be a war?
STEPHANOPOULOS: There has been tension, as you said.
AHMADINEJAD: But it has been unilateral. It has been one-sided, meaning the United States government continually acts against us. I don’t think they should do this. Why do they act against a great nation? Have the US gained anything from it so far? We have many areas for cooperation – scientific, economic, nuclear matters. We can cooperate on nuclear matters. Why should we confront each other? We should cooperate.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, that’s the final question I wanted to ask you because I’m getting a sense that we’re– we’re running out of time. Yesterday the secretary of energy here in the United States, Steven Chu accused Iran of “denial, deceit and evasion” in refusing to open its nuclear program to comprehensive inspections. What’s your response?
AHMADINEJAD: Do you believe that this Secretary has the right to intervene in Iran’s internal affairs?
STEPHANOPOULOS: This is an international issue as you know.
AHMADINEJAD: But let me ask you, are there international organizations who are in charge or not? Is he talking as the representative of one of those organizations? Or is he commanding those organizations. I think that’s where the problem lies.
STEPHANOPOULOS: He can’t command them.
AHMADINEJAD: It is in the behavior and in the spirit of some of the leaders of the United States. They believe that they own the world. They interfere in everything. Is Iran really pursuing a nuclear bomb? Why would we seek a nuclear bomb?
STEPHANOPOULOS: Many believe so.
AHMADINEJAD: These many are the European and American politicians. Why should we seek a bomb? Do we need a bomb so we can confront thousands of American bombs? What rational person would believe that? I’ve said many times we don’t want a bomb and we are against any nuclear bombs. But the government that has stored thousands of bombs, can it say anything against others? This is the problem. This is the wrong spirit. This kind of spirit cannot lead the world to peace. If there are any problems between the United States and Iran, it’s because of this spirit held by some American politicians. They bully. And this won’t solve the problem.
STEPHANOPOULOS: We are out of time. What is your number one message for the American people this week?
AHMADINEJAD: We do love all Americans. We love all nations. We seek peace, security and welfare for all nations. This is the Iranian culture. This is the Iranian history. We don’t have and haven’t had any problems with the people of the United States. But we oppose the policies of American politicians. And there is a rationale behind our position – the rationale is justice and friendship. Everyone has to be respectful, everyone has to be friends, and justice has to rule for everybody.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Thank you for your time.
AHMADINEJAD: I wish you good luck.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.