Does Ahmadinejad Speak for Iran?

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Julie Jacobson / AP

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addresses the 63rd session of the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, Sept. 23 2008 at the United Nations.

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An interesting concept you bring up is the issue of haq, or "rights," to show how Iranians view their place in the world, as well as their nuclear program. Are they trying to build an atomic weapon?

Of course Iranians, like Americans and others, do take pride in their country's attempt to master a new technology. But as I say in my book, the Iranian government deliberately frames the nuclear issue as one of Iranian rights — or haq. And that's because the Iranian people are very receptive to the idea that they are entitled to certain rights. Of course the regime insists it is not, and will never, seek a nuclear weapon. So when the argument is put that way, rightly or wrongly, it just doesn't make sense to a lot of Iranians for the West to tell them what rights they can and cannot enjoy. Every cab driver in Tehran can tell you that Iran's right to develop nuclear energy is enshrined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by both the U.S. and Iran.

You talk warmly in your book about [reformist] former President Mohammed Khatami, whom you've known for years and is, in fact, a relative by marriage. But many in both Iran and the West look back on his administration, from 1997-2005, with a good deal of disappointment because he failed to bring about many of his proposed reforms. Do you think he's still relevant, and is he hoping to make a political comeback?

I do think he's relevant, in some ways more than before. Iran's economy is not performing well right now, and a lot of Iranians are worse off than they were four years ago, when Khatami was in power. And, of course, Iran is far more diplomatically and economically isolated than it was then.

I saw Khatami in early September in Tehran, and he denied that he had ambitions to run for president again. But many political observers believe he may be the only figure in the reform camp who could actually defeat the incumbent, President Ahmadinejad. I was told that Ayatollah Rafsanjani, the top behind-the-scenes power broker of Iranian politics [who preceded Khatami as President and lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 elections] is throwing his support behind Khatami, and is pressuring him to run.

Click here for a photoessay of Iran.

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