Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad refused Thursday to explicitly rule out development of nuclear weapons and said in an interview with NBC News that he would “never” halt Tehran’s work on peaceful nuclear programs to mollify Western skeptics.
In the interview, which was conducted by NBC News’ Ann Curry on the grounds of the Presidential Compound in Tehran, Ahmadinejad also defended the legality of his re-election last spring, which was met with days of violence in the streets.
“The law prevails,” he said, speaking through an interpreter. “I don’t see any problems.”
NBC News released excerpts of the interview Thursday afternoon. Fuller excerpts were being aired Thursday evening on “NBC Nightly News” and Friday morning on TODAY, and the entire interview was scheduled to air Sunday at 1 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.
The interview was conducted a week before Ahmadinejad is scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly and two weeks before multilateral talks get under way on Iran’s nuclear program, the first involving Iran since a 2008 session in Geneva foundered over its refusal to discuss its research on enriched uranium.
The Associated Press, citing a secret document it had seen, reported Thursday that the International Atomic Energy Agency had concluded that Iran does have the ability to make a nuclear bomb. The agency later issued a statement, saying it had “no concrete proof” of a nuclear weapons program.
Ahmadinejad did not clear anything up, rebuffing repeated requests to affirm that there were no scenarios under which it would develop nuclear weapons. He said only that such weapons were “not a part of our programs and plans” because “we don’t need such a weapon.”
And he was adamant that he would not yield to pressure from the United Nations, the United States and European governments to put an end to what he maintains are peaceful programs, which have aggravated tensions and led to three sets of Security Council sanctions.
“We have always believed in talking, in negotiating — that is our logic. Nothing has changed,” Ahmadinejad said.
But “if you are talking about the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes, this will never be closed down here in Iran,” he said.
Nor will Tehran take any steps that might weaken its defenses against “the Zionists” — a reference to Israel — and “the warheads which have been stockpiled in Britain, in the U.S., in a handful of other countries,” he said.
“Who started the Iraq war, or Afghanistan, for that matter?” Ahmadinejad asked. “What parties supported Saddam against Iran? Today, who are behind the killing of the Palestinians?”
Ahmadinejad: Protests proof of freedom
The president was similarly unforthcoming when he was pressed to justify the credibility of his re-election June 12, saying he did not “see any problems.”
Opponents have insisted that Mir Hossein Mousavi won the voting and that the government faked the balloting in Ahmadinejad’s favor. Thousands of opponents poured into the streets but were met with a heavy government crackdown.
Opposition leaders say at least 72 protesters were killed, while government officials maintain that 36 died in the unrest, the worst in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Ahmadinejad accused the U.S. and British governments of trying to “damage and hurt the Islamic Republic of Iran” by encouraging the riots.
“They were totally wrong in their assumption,” Ahmadinejad said of statements of support for the protesters from President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. “What they did was heinous.”
The post-election protests and accusations of fraud were not evidence that the election was tainted, Ahmadinejad said, but proof that “any person can express his or her point of view ... within the confines of the law.”
“The legal frameworks inside Iran are very clear, and if a person has an opinion to express within the confines of the law, they are free to express such opinions,” he said.
Iran’s election laws are built on “the strongest ... foundations,” he said, and “the law prevails. I don't see any problems.”
President calls on U.S., Britain to reform
Large protests are expected when Ahmadinejad addresses the U.N. General Assembly next week.
Ahmadinejad would not preview the themes of his address in New York, saying, “Let’s wait for next week, and you will hear what I have to say.”
But he again accused the United States and Britain of encouraging the opposition, even though he insisted it is not he who needs to reform. Rather than press Tehran over its policies, Western leaders should scale back their own ambitions, he said.
“We think the danger lies in the warheads which have been stockpiled in Britain, in the U.S., in a handful of other countries,” he said, claiming that Washington was spending 200 times as the budget of Iran” on weapons even though its population was only four times larger — “much more money compared to China, Japan, Russia and Iran altogether.”
Ahmadinejad said he would bring a message of “logical behavior and fair play and justice” to the United Nations and would “call on everyone to become friends.”
“Mr. Obama came into office with the slogan of change, and we have welcomed that slogan, and the people of the U.S. also welcomed that slogan,” he said.
Video: Full interview “We think that the world and U.S. policies need to fundamentally and seriously change,” he added. “We have also announced that if serious change happens, we welcome that.
“We think for one or two countries to think that they own the world and they are the ones that make the major global decisions and others should follow — that period has come to an end.”
Ann Curry of NBC News reported from Tehran, Iran. Investigative producer Robert Windrem reported from New York. Alex Johnson of msnbc.com contributed to this report.