For a man of such outsize ambition, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tries hard to seem normal. He drives a 20-year-old Peugeot and spends a few nights a week at a modest house in a residential neighborhood of Tehran. When he visited New York City in September, his wife brought dates from Iran to save money on food. And then there is the Jacket--the bland beige windbreaker he wears even for affairs of state, projecting the image he prefers for himself as champion of the dispossessed, a global Everyman.
Little else is ordinary about Ahmadinejad, 50. In his 18 months as Iran's President, the former engineering professor turned Tehran mayor has become the most voluble, polarizing leader in the Middle East. It isn't simply his country's support of militant Shi'ite groups in Lebanon and Iraq, or Iran's suspected pursuit of a nuclear bomb. In 2006 Ahmadinejad also appealed to audiences beyond Iran who resent U.S. power and feel emboldened to challenge it. His denials of the Holocaust and his threat to destroy Israel cause shudders in the West but have made him an icon throughout the Muslim world.
Ahmadinejad's bombast has stiffened the Bush Administration's resistance to talking with Tehran. And discontent with him is growing at home. Last week a few dozen students shouted "Death to the dictator!" as Ahmadinejad delivered a speech. Two days later, he met TIME's Scott MacLeod at Ahmadinejad's private office in Tehran for a 75-minute interview, his second with TIME in three months. Excerpts:
TIME Why did you write your recent letter to the American people?
AHMADINEJAD Did you read it? My letter had different aims and goals. Many American citizens in the messages and letters they sent requested that I bring up my points of view directly. Many of them said that the government of America doesn't let them receive my point of view in its entirety and without distortions. So I talked to them directly. The behavior of the American government has severely damaged the position of the United States. No country in the world looks upon America as a friend. When the U.S. is mentioned, people are reminded of war, aggression and bloodshed, and that's not a good thing. In other words, the American people are paying for something they don't believe in.
TIME Was this a public relations exercise, or do you really want a dialogue with the U.S.?
AHMADINEJAD We separate the account of the American people and the American government. With the government of the U.S., the issue is different. I sent a letter to Mr. Bush. I really wanted him to revise his behavior. But apparently it didn't have any effect.
TIME The Baker-Hamilton commission recommended the U.S. initiate a dialogue with Iran. If the Bush Administration reaches out to Iran, are you ready to talk to President Bush?
AHMADINEJAD We believe that the decision makers in America should change their outlook. They do not consider any value for the people of the region. The Iraqi people are also human beings. Today they have a constitution, a parliament and a government. They can run their own affairs by themselves. They have no need for a guardian. If the outlook of the American management is changed, then ways will be found for solving the problem.
TIME So will you talk to the U.S. or not?