Here in New York Tuesday we sat down for an exclusive conversation with a man who is the focus of so much of the Bush Administration foreign policy: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man most Americans are used to seeing in a zip-up tan jacket, the man who the U.S. believes is planning to make Iran the next nuclear nation on the planet, and that has prompted talk of a future war between the two nations.
Brian Williams: How do you think the discussion has been allowed to get that far, that we're discussing possible war between the U.S. and Iran?
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: I think we need to ask this question from American, U.S., politicians. The world has changed. The time for world empires has ended. The U.S. government thinks that it's still the period after World War II, when they came out as a victor and enjoyed special rights. And can rule, therefore, over the rest of the world. I explicitly say that I am against the policies chosen by the U.S. government to run the world. Because these policies are moving the world towards war.
He is the son of a blacksmith, he's the former mayor of Tehran, who won the presidency out of nowhere, and has made news often with his sometimes-outrageous statements. He speaks very little English and so our conversation was through an interpreter, beginning with his message, pointed at our audience.
Brian Williams: Mr. President, you're here as a guest of the United Nations, under the protection of the United States. What is your message to the American people?
Ahmadinejad: In the letter I sent to Mr. Bush, I also addressed the American people. We think that the American people are like our people. They're good people. They support peace, equality and brotherhood. They like to see the world in peace.
Williams: What was your reaction to the pope's speech? And do you accept his apology?
Ahmadinejad: I think that the people who give political advice to the pope were not well informed.
Williams: Do you accept his words of apology?
Ahmadinejad: 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. People in important positions should be careful about what they say. What he said may give an excuse to another group to start a war.
Williams: The president of the United States, speaking to the United Nations today, said to the people of Iran he looks forward to the day when America and Iran can be good friends. And close partners, in the cause of peace. How do you react to the statement of the American president today?
Ahmadinejad: We have the same desire, to be together, for the cause of world peace. But we have to see what the impediments are. Is it Iranian forces that have occupied countries neighboring the United States, or is it American forces that are occupying countries neighboring Iran? If Mr. Bush is saying that he can create the distance between the Iranian nation and the Iranian government, he is wrong.
Williams: You are on the cover of Time magazine here in the United States and around the world. Inside, it says, "A Date with a Dangerous Mind." Why do you think they think you have a dangerous mind? Do you?
Ahmadinejad: You should hear what I have to say, and then be the judge of that. I think that if people have a hard time accepting the logic and fact, they should not actually accuse others. The picture is an attempt to darken my face a lot. I think it actually shows me much younger than what I am.
Williams: If I was President Bush, sitting here across from you, what would you say to him? resident to President, but more important, man to man?
Ahmadinejad: I think that the situation would have been better here, if you were Mr. Bush. I sent him a letter.
Williams: I'm aware of it.
Ahmadinejad: I raised some very serious issues. I really expressed my thoughts and beliefs. You know that I am teacher. I am interested in talks and in dialogue. I like to understand the truth. Facts. And in that letter, I raised very important subject. I invited him to peace, brotherhood and friendship. But we did not receive an answer.
Williams: And the American president says, "It's OK, keep your nuclear program to keep your homes warm. Stop enriching uranium toward weapons." How do you react?
Ahmadinejad: Who is the judge for that? Any entity except for the IAEA? Reports indicate that Iran has had no deviation. We have said on numerous occasions that our activities are for peaceful purposes. The agency's cameras videotape all the activities that we have. Did Iran build the atomic bomb and use it? You must know that, because of our beliefs and our religion, we're against such acts. We are against the atomic bomb. We believe bombs-- are used only to kill people.
Williams: Why keep them in your arsenal if you don't someday hope to tip them with a nuclear weapon?
Ahmadinejad: So are you thinking of the possibility of a danger? Is that what you're speaking of?
Williams: I'm asking about your arsenal.
Ahmadinejad: Yes, we are powerful and strong in defending ourselves.
Our conversation took place in a hotel here in Midtown Manhattan, where he's protected by his own security and the U.S. Secret Service while he's in America.
At first, the 5-foot 4-inch President disliked the chairs, saying the arms wouldn't allow him to move his arms. So we changed chairs. He talked about the cover of TIME magazine. He thinks the illustration makes him look young. And when I noted that he was not wearing his trademark tan zipper jacket, he said he wore a suit because he thought I would do the same.
Once underway, I asked him to explain why he famously called the Holocaust a "myth."
Williams: There is something you said that upset and scared a lot of people. It upset a lot of Jews in the United States and around the world when you called the Holocaust a myth. There are people, some people I know, who escaped Hitler's reign. There is research. There are scholars who teach you about it. And yet, you've expressed doubt about the holocaust, why?
Ahmadinejad: In the Second World War, over 60 million people lost their lives. They were all human beings. Why is it that only a select group of those who were killed have become so prominent and important?
Williams: Because of the difference humankind draws between warfare and genocide.
Ahmadinejad: Do you think that the 60 million who lost their lives were all at the result of warfare alone? There were 2 million that were part of the military at the time -- perhaps altogether 58 million civilians with no roles in the war -- Christians, Muslims, they were all killed. If this event happened, and if it is a historical event, then we should allow everyone to research it and study it. The more research and studies are done, the more we can become aware of the realities that happened. Historical events are always subject to revisions, and reviews and studies.
Williams: Is that a change in your position that Israel should be wiped away? And second, would you ever be willing to sit down with Jews, with scholars, with survivors of Hitler's camps where 6 million died? Our American film director, Steven Spielberg, is one of many collecting the stories of those still alive, who will tell you of the dead, and the program to kill the Jews in Germany and elsewhere.
Ahmadinejad: The main question is, if this happened in Europe, what is the fault of the Palestinian people? This is a problem we have today, the root cause of many of our problems, not what happened 60 years ago. The Palestinian people, their lives are being destroyed today under the pretext of the Holocaust. Their lands have been occupied, usurped. What is their fault? What are they to be blamed for? Are they not human beings? Do they have no rights? What role did they play in the Holocaust?