Ahmadinejad's Ambitions

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meets with participants of a conference on the Holocaust, as two anti-Zionist Rabbis sit at foreground, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2006.

On Wednesday evening I sat down with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a 75-minute interview — TIME's second with the controversial leader in just the past three months. Ahmadinejad was as spirited as ever — answering questions with questions ("Do you not believe in God?"), correcting the interpreter's translations (he understands some English but prefers not to speak it) and laughing when he felt he had scored a rhetorical point.

Despite his demeanor, Ahmadinejad was in the midst of a tense week, in which he had welcomed delegates to a conference questioning the Nazi Holocaust, taken on students at Amir Khabir University who chanted "Death to the dictator!" and campaigned for candidates in Iranian municipal elections, including his sister, who's running for Tehran city council. In short, it was a typical week for the United States' most prominent and charismatic irritant not named Kim Jong-il, and we discussed all of the events in 2006 that saw Ahmadinejad become a major player on the world stage.

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 points 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 in the world. No country in the world looks upon America as a friend. When the U.S. name is mentioned, usually 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.

Was this a public relations exercise to improve your image, or do you really want a dialogue with the United States?

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.

The Baker-Hamilton commission recommended the U.S. initiate a dialogue with you. If the Bush Administration reached out to Iran, are you ready to talk to President Bush now?

We believe that the decision makers in America should change their outlook. What they are thinking is only their own interests. They do not consider any value for the people of the region. They should believe that the Iraqi people are also human beings. They can run their own affairs by themselves. They have no need for a guardian. If the outlook of the of the American management is changed, then ways will be found for solving the problem.

So will you talk to the U.S. or not?

We want to resolve the problem. We do not want to waste time. We do not want a political game. What we want is for the rights of the Iraqi people to be returned to them. If the government of the United States changes its behavior, the conditions will be changed. Then a dialogue could take place.

You've just held a conference questioning the Holocaust. Why not hold a peace conference instead? You could invite the Israelis and Palestinians to talk about peace, instead of what happened 60 years ago.

As a matter of fact this conference was in line of peace. Because for the past 60 years, the Palestinian people have been suppressed using the Holocaust as the pretext. If the issue of the Holocaust became clear, the issue would be solved.

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