NBC News’ Ann Curry interviewed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the presidential compound in Tehran on Thursday.
In a wide-ranging interview, Ahmadinejad responded to questions about Iran’s nuclear program, the legitimacy of the recent election and allegations that opposition supporters were tortured in prison.
The Iranian leader’s words were translated from Farsi. Read the extended transcript below.
NBC News’ Ann Curry: Mr. President, you are speaking to us at a critical moment. Iran has now agreed to negotiate in what could lead to the first significant talks between Iran and the United States in nearly 30 years. What do you want from the United States? Above all else?
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful, a prayer for the arrival of the 12th Imam. Well, let me start by expressing my warm regards to the people of the U.S. and for them – and for all peoples I pray for further success and welfare. As you said, the world is on the threshold of major developments, a period has ended, another period has started. And relations which have prevailed around the world for 60 years have come to an end. And today a new arrangement should be put in place, based on new principles so that the world is directed towards peace and tranquility.
We have always believed in talking, in negotiating, in – that is our logic. Nothing has changed. And as far as we're concerned, nothing has changed. But whatever happens, I very much hope that it will benefit the peoples around the world. And it will benefit fraternal love and peace and happiness.
Curry: You seem to believe that President Obama is someone you can deal with. What are your personal impressions? Your personal feelings about the American President?
Ahmadinejad: Of course. When we talk about a deal with regards to international relations, I don't subscribe to that particular word. We think that – oppression and accord is a better word in place of a new deal. Peace and security and friendship. These are principles which cannot happen without sincere cooperation. Everyone should enter into a sincere cooperation. And work together.
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. We think that the world and U.S. policies need to fundamentally and seriously change. We have also announced that if serious change happens, we welcome that. And we will help to bring such a change about. I think Mr. Obama is a person.
If the gentleman decides to bring such a change about, of course, he will be met with weighty challenges. But some of what he has announced, the gentleman can bring about. In the eight or nine months from the time wherein the gentleman has come into office, has become the President, we have seen some changes – in the political language, the words that are being used. And some – every day issues – well, in their own particular situation, they are important. But – but they do not play a fateful role in international relations. I very much hope that the gentleman will move towards fundamental changes. And we are waiting for such changes to come about.
Curry: President Obama speaks of wanting to make the world safer. And in this regard, he and some other nations are hoping that you will change your mind and speak about your nuclear program. You have said that's off the table. Iran will not speak about its nuclear program. If that is true, then what will you speak about? What will you be negotiating over? Given that this is the number one issue, this worry about the safety of the world?
Ahmadinejad: 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. International security will only happen with real popular participation by all nations. We are very much against the conflict, occupation, and the expansion of the fabrication of different weapons.
We think that the parties that are producing and do have – atomic, biological, chemical weapons, they need to be disarmed, whoever they are. And those who have more bombs should be disarmed sooner. Having said that, there are economic and political issues to deal with. Today the world is facing major economic challenges, cultural challenges and others. These can only be resolved with cooperation and accord. But for a state to think that it is the sole maker of decisions and others should follow in its footsteps, that is wrong, they are mistaken.
Curry: You talked about the need – just now, the need to disarm. For the world to disarm. At the same time, Iran is close to having the number of centrifuges it needs for a nuclear program. You've increased also the range of your missiles. And just last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed quote "concerns that Iran has not answered all of its questions to verify that you are not developing a nuclear weapon." Why not just answer all the questions, Mr. President?
Ahmadinejad: Well, our activities are peaceful. And the agency has said as much, time and again. And we are going to continue our activities within the confines of the agency. We think the danger lies – in the warheads, which have been stockpiled in Britain, in the U.S., in a handful of other countries. And some states announce that this is where their power rests. And based on these arsenals, they want to rule the world. We think that if we are fair and just everything will be resolved.
Curry: The agency says the answers to these questions is critical to their being able to determine that Iran is in fact not moving towards obtaining nuclear weapons. If Israel concludes that you are close to having a nuclear weapon, it could bomb Iran. Egypt and Saudi Arabia could decide that they need nuclear weapons. Are you launching a nuclear arms race in this most volatile region of the world, at the risk to your own people and to the world?
Ahmadinejad: Well, from the very beginning we – we are fundamentally opposed to the arms race. I like to think that the major arms industries around the world are helping this arms race. Who started the Iraq war or Afghanistan for that matter? What parties supported Saddam against Iran? Today who are behind the killing of the Palestinians? For that matter, what parties are signing tens of billions of dollars in arms contracts with other countries?
We think the arms race has been started by that handful of countries, which I refer to earlier to line the pockets of capitalists. And this is a policy which will not pay off, so to speak. At the end of the day – well, what is – what is being spent on arms right now is 200 times as the budget of Iran. The population of the U.S. is four times that of Iran. And also the U.S. is spending much more money compared to China, Japan, Russia, and Iran altogether.
If you sum all these up, the U.S. arms or rather military budget is three times that. So, it's very clear who is behind that arms race. So, I think such mentalities need to change if the U.S. government wants to play a new role and to be influential around the world. It needs to change its attitude. First the nuclear arsenals in the U.S. and Britain need to be destroyed, dismantled. And then no one would doubt the good will of the U.S. around the world.
Curry: You insist that Iran is not trying to develop nuclear weapons, but whether or not Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, people think you are. And this is risking the safety of your people. It is risking the safety of the world. Why not just answer all of the agency's questions? Allow for the truth to rise? If you're saying the truth is that there are no weapons in your mind, in your plan?
Ahmadinejad: Are you representing the agency here?
Curry: No, sir, I am not. I'm asking for the safety of –
Ahmadinejad: Well, with –
Curry: – the world.
Ahmadinejad: – the agency. Our relations are good. And – in accordance with the regulations and – without – being influenced by political pressure, we will cooperate with the agency. But whenever political inclinations, if you will, of certain countries seek to replace legal matters, our response will be very clear. Our nuclear issues are very clear for that matter. They do not require more explanation.
Curry: If Israel strikes Iran and the U.S. says it did not approve that strike, would you believe that Israel acted alone?
Ahmadinejad: First of all, the Zionist regime is much smaller to entertain ideas of ever attacking Iran. Today, it's very well known, it's very clear that this illegal, murderous regime, which is killing children and women and innocents. This regime is being influenced by parties which are, in Europe and the U.S., in political corners, if you will. As far as we're concerned, the Zionist regime is not alone. And it’s continued life and – all the murderous activity it engages in has something to do and is connected with – the arms industrial complex in Europe and the U.S.
Well, there might be some crazy people in the Zionist regime or amongst those capitalists that might entertain such a mistake. Our response is well understood beforehand. It's very well known. And not only our people, but all peoples will think that the U.S. government will be responsible for the atrocities as committed by the Zionist regime. They know that right now. When inside Gaza, the Zionist regime engages in murderous behavior, the U.S. Government, the British Government, and certain U.S. capitalists are blamed. Rather – or rather over the people who are just being used pawns.
Curry: What would Iran's response be to such a strike if it were to occur from Israel?
Ahmadinejad: Well, our reaction will certainly be decisive and they will rue the day.
Curry: Are there conditions under which Iran would weaponize?
Ahmadinejad: Well, nuclear arms, we believe, they belong to the past. And the past generation. Today, what brings power to a people is cultural and human power. Cultural influence. Human logic. If nuclear weapons could have helped, surely the Bush Government would have been saved, so to speak, in Iraq and Afghanistan. If nuclear weapons were influential, they would have prevented the downfall of the Soviet Union. For that matter, the downfall of the Zionist regime.
Today, what prevails around the world are ideas, logic, and culture. Our people have never had a need for nuclear weapons. And the Iraq War raged against Iran, in those days, the U.S. Administration and a number of European Governments were supporting Saddam. And in those days, even we didn't need such a weapon. We defended ourselves. And today, we will do so again. If there is a need.
So, may I assume, then, your answer to that question is, "No."
Ahmadinejad: My response to what question?
Curry: Is there a condition under which Iran would weaponize?
Ahmadinejad: We don't need such – we don't have such a need for nuclear weapons. We don't need nuclear weapons. Without such weapons, we are very much able to defend ourselves.
Curry: So, the answer is no, sir?
Ahmadinejad: I don't know what you mean by no?
Curry: Forgive me, sir. May I assume that the answer to the question, “Is there a scenario in which you, Iran, would weaponize?” May I understand that your answer is, “No.” It's a yes or no question, sir. And I'm asking if it's yes or no.
Ahmadinejad: If you are talking about the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes, this will never be closed down here in Iran. But if you are talking about weapons, we don't need such a weapon. It's not a part of our any – of our programs and plans.
Curry: Sure, I understand. I'm not talking about the enrichment of – uranium. I'm asking if there are any scenarios in which you would change what you say is your course and move into creating a nuclear weapon. You say Iran has no need to have a nuclear weapon. And you're opposed to this idea. But I'm asking is there a scenario under which you could foresee that Iran would ever weaponize. And my understanding of your answer is the answer is no. And I want to make sure I'm correct. Am I correct that the answer is no?
Ahmadinejad: We do not see any need for such weapons. And the conditions around the world are moving to favor our ideas. We think that those parties which have stockpiled atomic weapons have to pay any day now a lot of money to be rid of them.
Curry: You know, it – people will remark that you did not say no, as I've asked you three times the same question. You did not say no. Are you sure you want that to be your final answer, sir?
Ahmadinejad: Well, you can take from this whatever you want, madam.
Curry: All right. All right, sir. Let's move on then. Could your missiles – could Iran's missiles reach Europe? Does Iran have that capability now?
Ahmadinejad: Well, at the end of the day, we have sufficient means to completely defend ourselves. Whatever point wherein a missile is launched from around us, that is, we will be able to defend ourselves. You're not asking me to give you permission to visit our missile sites, are you?
Curry: I would love permission, sir.
Ahmadinejad: Well, that's a good wish, I guess. Hopefully, in the future you will have a chance to visit.
Curry: I would very much like that. And thank you for bringing it up. I asked you about this question about your missiles reaching Europe because there is – there are reports today that the United States is abandoning its missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Because the U.S. is determined that Iran's long range missile program has not progressed rapidly as previously estimated. That it – that your missiles cannot reach Europe. I wonder what your reaction is to this news.
Ahmadinejad: We welcome this development. We think that this is a sign leading to change. Basically, from Europe, we feel and see no threat coming. We think that at the end of the day, Europe would stand side by side with Iran. And to work with Iran. This development will happen. After everything is said and done, we need to live in peace and harmony. With one another. And we are sharing the wish for all missiles around the world to be dismantled. All weapons for that matter to be destroyed. In their place schools hospitals and clinics need to be constructed. This is what we are wishing for, hoping for.
Curry: Inside and outside of Iran, people are questioning the legitimacy of your presidency. The Speaker of the Parliament, [Ali] Larijani, himself has said that many in Iran don't believe the election was fair. So, it is important to ask you, Mr. President, it's important to ask you this question. Did you steal this election?
Ahmadinejad: In Iran – in Iran, expressing ones point of view is fully permissible. It's free. Any person can express his or her point of view. And have their own opinions. The– the – if you will, the structures relating to elections in Iran are the strongest such foundations. And the law prevails. There are – 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. I don't see any problems.
Curry: Would you like to answer that question more directly, given that it is a question that people around the world have asked? Would you like to address the question, “Did you steal this election, sir?”
Ahmadinejad: I don't know what you mean by that.
Curry: Did you create conditions so that you would win no matter the vote?
Ahmadinejad: It's very clear. Whoever becomes a candidate will start a campaign and will do his outmost to win. One candidate wins and another person loses out. Let me ask you. Mr. Obama, did he steal the elections? Well, in any election, one party wins. The candidate who has lost, can he say that the election was stolen? So, what are elections for? I ask you.
Elections are organized so that the people decide. Elections are organized so that people, different parties, do not think that their point of view is the only prevailing one. It's very clear. It's very well known. That different people, different parties will have different points of view. And the people decide. I think we should be courageous enough to accept the vote of the people. It's more courageous than participating in the vote itself.
Curry: What gives –
Ahmadinejad: For 30 years, Iran's government has been legitimate. And legal. Even in the time wherein my competitors won the elections.
Curry: What gives you confidence that you actually won the reelection?
Ahmadinejad: The law. And legal organizations. And the vote of the people.
Curry: People who heard the reports of the election irregularities filled your streets. There were women, there were children, there were elderly people. How do you justify the violence on your own people? Why did you unleash the Basij enforcers?
Ahmadinejad: I think the behavior as shown by the British government and some parts of the U.S. government, with regards to our election was – heinous. What they did was heinous. They were thinking that with bad press, directing bad press against us. And – encouraging some people to engage in rioting, they can damage and hurt the Islamic Republic of Iran. And to fulfill their designs. They were totally wrong in their assumption.
Law in this country has determined the fate. And the responsibilities are clear cut. The police officers in Iran were – were hurt much more than others. They were injured much more than anyone else. Of course, our assumption is that the comments made by the British government and certain U.S. statesmen, what they're saying today, that we were mistaken to interfere and instigate the riots. And we want to make amends.
They – they said that they want to make amends. I'm hoping that they will make amends. The elections in Iran have come to an end. It's finished. And this is what has happened in the past. Our people are cohesive. And are standing as one. I'm talking about the 40 million people who participated in the vote, and the total 70 million population of this country. And with the bad press that is directed against this country, they cannot sow the seeds of discord amongst the ranks of our people.
In each country, you can easily find a handful of people who will go outside the confines of the law. And every day we see – images of how the U.S. police deals with ordinary U.S. citizens. For that matter, the British police and how they deal with British citizens. What they are doing compared to Iran is tens of times bigger, if I can use the word. This has nothing to do with the elections or what administration is in power, for that matter.
Curry: I want to give you an opportunity, because I think it's important – for you to have this opportunity to react to the video that was seen by millions of people around the world, showing the death of Neda. People were very upset watching this. She has come to symbolize the violence in the streets. I want to know what were your emotions when you saw this video?
Ahmadinejad: I was saddened by this as well. All the Iranian people were saddened. And in a letter I asked the judiciary to look into this more seriously. But it might interest to you know, similar to this, took place in Venezuela, the coup against Mr. Chavez. The exact same scenario, the same incident. And the coup ringleaders were being supported by the then U.S. administration. We think that this incident is a – suspicious death. We are treating it as a suspicious death. And we are – we are very sorry about that. And I am sure that the truth will come to light.
Curry: She has come to represent what some in Iran and some outside Iran say has been a series of examples. People – are citing – well, I'll put it this way. Human rights organizations estimate 4,000 people were arrested in these protests. Some are still missing. There are reports of torture. There are even reports, Mr. President, that some women protesters were raped in prison. Your government has acknowledged that some protesters were killed. You often speak of compassion here inside Iran. The question has to be asked, where was your compassion for your people?
Ahmadinejad: There are two or three points I need to bring to your attention. First of all, all of us regret the fact that some people were killed. Two, the police officers and those who accompanied the officers were killed. Their numbers are higher compared to others. Three, the number of people who are killed by the U.S. police in different – states in the United States are much higher compared to the ones who lost their lives here in Iran. We regret their death, all of them.
The government in Iran stands beside the people. And we exercise the most amount of – and also the judiciary in Iran is independent. And it is charged with dealing these matters. But let me bring to your attention a much more important point. The era wherein governments like the British government or some U.S. statesmen thought that by engaging –in– bad press they could shape – or campaigns they could shape the opinion of the public around the world, that era has come to an end. It's in the past.
The behavior and the track record, if you will, of British media, certain Brit –British media and U.S. media was not acceptable. And Iranian people know how to take care of themselves. They don't need others to be sorry for them. The judiciary has been tasked with looking into this. And any person those who have instigated riots or have not fulfilled their duty. They will be brought to justice. And the President cannot influence the degree of severity wherein the judiciary will deal with such matters.
Curry: The President can express anger at the poor treatment of his citizens. There are – I wonder – you are a father. What do you say to the families who accuse this government of brutality, torture, disappearances of their sons and daughters?
Ahmadinejad: Well, you are expressing certain claims that by and large are being leveled by those oppose the Islamic Republic. I'm not in a position to answer or to judge whatever you are claiming. But are you – does your heart really and sincerely go out to the people? Are you really – is that really the truth?
Curry: I know people, Mr. President.
Ahmadinejad: I don't believe that.
Curry: I know people, Mr. President, who I believe were innocent. Who were tortured –
Ahmadinejad: It's possible
Curry: in the prisons.
Ahmadinejad: I don't have such information. People tortured in prisons. Maybe you have more – specific information. Our judiciary, in accordance with the law, will deal with this matter.
Ahmadinejad: Yes, that's true. I prayed for the arrival of the 12th Imam. The owner of the age, as we call him. Because the owner of the age is the symbol of the – justice and brotherly love prevailing around the world. When the Imam arrives, all of these problems will be resolved. And a prayer for the owner of the age is nothing but a wish for justice and brotherly love to prevail around the world. And it's an obligation a person takes upon himself to always think about brotherly love. And also to treating others as equals.
All people can establish such a connection with the Imam of the age. It's roughly the same as the relationship which exists between Christians and the Christ. They speak with Jesus Christ and they are sure that Christ hears them. And responds. Therefore, this is not limited to us only. Any person can talk with the Imam.
Curry: You've said that you believe that his arrival, the apocalypse, would happen in your own lifetime. What do you believe that you should do to hasten his arrival?
Ahmadinejad: I have never said such a thing.
Curry: Ah, forgive me.
Ahmadinejad: I – I – I was talking about peace.
Curry: Forgive me.
Ahmadinejad: What is being said about an apocalyptic war and – global war, things of that nature. This is what the Zionists are claiming. Imam…will come with logic, with culture, with science. He will come so that there is no more war. No more enmity, hatred. No more conflict. He will call on everyone to enter a brotherly love. Of course, he will return with Jesus Christ. The two will come back together. And working together, they would fill this world with love. The stories that have been disseminated around the world about extensive war, apocalyptic wars, so on and so forth, these are false.
Curry: In the meantime, there still is conflict on Earth. And one question that relates to that is many people want to know, will you allow your opposition – will you allow the people who have opposed you, the leadership that has opposed you, specifically, Mr. Karoubi to be arrested?
Ahmadinejad: Well, opposition here is very evident and very extensive. And you have the freest kind of expression of opinions here in Iran. Of course, everyone should respect the law. And many people here sometimes go beyond legal confines. At – at the very least, whatever –they say whatever they wish against me. And – I'm not worried about such comments. But in the U.S., the U.S. government, would it allow for an opposition to exist which will be working towards the destruction of the very foundation or the fabric of the U.S. government?
Everyone should respect the law. And – and I also – I have – a very accepting attitude. Those who oppose me, quite freely express whatever they want and say whatever they wish without any worries. Just look at what the newspapers are printing. I am not concerned at all when it comes to such comments.
Curry: In a moment, I would like to ask you if you have a message for President Obama. But before I ask you that question, I must ask you about Americans, who are in custody here in Iran. Specifically, the parents of three young hikers, Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Joshua Fattal, who strayed into Iran. You knew about their case. Are asking for compassion. In a letter to you. They are going to be asking for you to bring their children on your plane to the United States. As a humanitarian gesture. Would you consider this?
Ahmadinejad: Well, I'm not happy that they have been arrested. But these individuals had –violated our borders. They had trampled the law. And in accordance with the laws, they need to be punished. But I ask you, five Iranian diplomats. For two years now, well, they were in – they were in prison – by U.S. troops. They had not violated the law. They were going about their diplomatic business and life in Arbil in Iraq.
U.S. troops in Iraq, without any documentation, arrested them. For two years, they were kept in prison. Even right now there are Iranians in the U.S. which have been arrested without any evidence. Just because of the political leanings, if you will, of certain American officials and statesmen. Certain American officials and statesmen. These people have family members, too. They have mothers. They have spouses. These are human beings, as well.
We think that it's only fair for us to look at all of these together. I am not happy that certain people are in prison. But after everything is said and done, there is the law to contend with. The U.S. government, did it ever apologize for its wrongful action in Iraq? As – by doing so, it would have taken a human – humanitarian posture. I have never heard such a thing. Or for that matter, Iranians were in U.S. prisons right now with no good reason.
The U.S. government, is it going to strike a humanitarian posture by releasing them? Will it release them? Of course, under an equal condition, we are ready to engage in reciprocal action. The family of the U.S. citizens which are in prison here in Iran I sympathize with them. They need to know that these individuals have trampled –have violated the law. They have illegally entered our borders. And in our laws, the punishment is very clear cut for such action. However, I'm going to do my best for the Iranians who are in U.S. prisons to be set free. And for these individuals, U.S. citizens here to be set free, as well. I am hoping that this will happen as soon as possible.
Curry: I know time is running short. Do I have permission to ask if you have a message for President Obama?
Ahmadinejad: I have said whatever needs to be said. We think that the world needs to be governed using new methods. We are hoping that real change will happen. We are also ready to assist with that. The policy which encourages an army from 12,000 kilometers away to come to our part of the world and to occupy the land to the East. And for people to be killed. We're hoping that such a policy will fundamentally change.
Today, I was reading a report about the occupation of Iraq. The report states that 650,000 people so far have been killed. And close to 4.5 million people have been displaced. This demonstrates that the military policy of various U.S. administrations have failed. Of course, we know that the Zionists which are lobbying inside the U.S. do not want for these conditions to change. Their benefit will only be realized when war continues. They see that if conflict continues, their pockets will be lined.
Of course, they will try to sabotage and put pressure on different parties so that change does not happen. But if Mr. Obama seriously is looking to bring about change, we will assist the gentleman. And we are hoping that he will succeed.
Curry: I know that your people are really need for you to go. I have more questions. But I – I don't know if you have the time.
Ahmadinejad: One more question. I think the time is up, however.
Curry: Then – then I think the question I would like to ask is about next week you will be speaking to the world at the United Nations General Assembly. Huge protests are planned, Mr. President, questioning your legitimacy as President. People are flying in from all over the United States so that thousands will greet you with their discontent. What is your message to these protesters? What is your message to the world as you speak to them next week?
Ahmadinejad: Well, let's wait for next week. And you will hear what I have to say. My message is a message of humanitarian love. We invite everyone to logical behavior and fair play and justice. They know and everyone knows all peoples know that limited political actions that are being directed by British and U.S. intelligence services. They will not have any effect over international relations. Of course, whoever expresses his opinion, I respect that. I will respect his point of view.
And we invite everyone to observe logical concerns. We call on everyone to become friends. And we call on them to respect the vote of the people. If a nation refused to bring them into office to vote for them, in other words, you shouldn't exact vengeance against them. Because whoever picks a fight with a nation will not win. And whatever-- all Iranians around the world, we respect them.
All human beings, for that matter, we respect them. And all people I call on them to stay away from violence. And engaging in riots. So and so forth. But to express their points of view. We must respect the ideas of different people. Nobody should try to impose his point of view on others. Everyone should be free to express their points of view. Of course, they need to be logical. And nations are free to choose. This right should be given to different nations so that they will be able to choose for themselves. May the Almighty bless you with further success.
Curry: Thank you for speaking to us, Mr. President.
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