and NBC News
updated 9/19/2006 8:03:50 PM ET 2006-09-20T00:03:50

President Bush’s policies in the Middle East are “moving the world toward war,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday, maintaining that Iran was a peaceful nation that merely wanted to be left alone to “stand on its [own] feet.”

“The U.S. government thinks that it’s still the period after World War II,” Ahmadinejad said in an interview with Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News,” a mindset that led Bush to believe that he “can rule, therefore, over the rest of the world.”

But “the world has changed,” he said. “Nations are awakened now. They want their rights — equal rights, and fair ones. The time for world empires has ended.”

The diplomatic confrontation between Washington and Tehran dominated Tuesday’s session of the United Nations, which was to hear from both presidents.

Ahmadinejad, who was to address the United Nations later in the day, did not attend Bush’s address Tuesday afternoon. Bush likewise avoided seeing Ahmadinejad during his New York visit, in line with the U.S. policy not to engage with the Iranian government until Tehran abandoned its attempts to enrich uranium, which Washington believes is the first step toward Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon.

“Why is the U.S. government so against our people?” Ahmadinejad, speaking through a translator, asked in the interview with NBC News. “They speak of war so easily, as if it’s on their daily agenda. We never speak of war.”

Nuclear program called peaceful
Ahmadinejad reiterated that Tehran’s uranium enrichment was intended to support a peaceful nuclear power program.

“We are against the atomic bomb,” he said. “We believe bombs are used only to kill people. And we are against killing people.”

And he accused Bush of hiding behind the nuclear issue to mask the U.S. government’s grudge for the overthrow of the shah in 1979.

“We all know that Iran’s nuclear issue is an excuse,” he said. “It’s been 27 years now that we've faced the hostility of the U.S. administration in various forms.”

“We thought we might be able to have friendly relations with the United States,” he added. “But the American government chose the wrong path, a path which is still continuing.”

Referring to America’s own nuclear arsenal, Ahmadinejad said, “We think that people who produce the atomic bomb cannot, in fact, speak of supporting world peace.”

Ahmadinejad calls U.S. leaders hypocrites
Ahmadinejad portrayed himself as a simple man who was plucked from the obscurity of academia to face the might of an American monolith. And he repeatedly accused the United States of hypocrisy in calling for other nations to dismantle their weapons while it maintained the largest military arsenal in the world.

“Again, I ask, who has the nuclear bomb and has used it before?” he asked. “Which one is a bigger danger? One that’s trying to develop a fuel for peaceful purposes? Or the one that made a nuclear weapon?”

Ahmadinejad said Iran was being bullied by Washington. Saying Iranians simply wanted to live in peace, he laid the blame for all of the world’s wars in the 20th century on non-Islamic regimes.

“Just look at the 20th century, for example, and the wars waged in that century,” he said. “Over 100 million people were killed. Hundreds of millions more were displaced. Who created those wars?

“Those who were killed exceed the number [of] the individuals who were killed in previous centuries combined. Where do the first and second world wars occur? Who started it?” he asked.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad accepted a statement of regret from Pope Benedict XVI, whom many Islamic leaders accused of fomenting religious hatred when he quoted a medieval text that characterized Islam as a religion “spread by the sword.”

“I think that the people who give political advice to the pope were not well informed,” Ahmadinejad said. “... I think that he actually takes back his statement, and there is no problem. He should be careful that those who want war do not take advantage of his statements and use it for their own causes.”

By’s Alex Johnson with NBC News’ Brian Williams in New York.

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