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A TALK WITH AHMADINEJAD

'In Iran, freedom is absolute'

September 23, 2008

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in New York this week to address the United Nations General Assembly. He sat down at the Grand Hyatt hotel with Times' Managing Editor Davan Maharaj, Foreign Editor Bruce Wallace and Jerusalem Bureau Chief Richard Boudreaux. What follows is an edited transcript of their interview:

As you know, in New York we have a lot of news. The financial system is in shambles and the fallout is convulsing the world. What do you think is behind this financial mess, and is it good or bad for Iran?

The U.S. government has made a series of mistakes in the past few decades. First, the imposition on the U.S. economy of heavy military engagement and involvement around the world. There's no one who can correctly pin at the moment exactly how much the war in Iraq, for example, has cost so far.

But clearly we're not very happy to see what has happened. We're never happy when people are pressured.

You have been reported as saying that the messiah is managing the daily affairs of the Iranian economy. In Iran, there are widespread reports of galloping inflation, massive unemployed, massive flight of capital and rampant corruption that you yourself have criticized. Do you deserve any responsibility for that?

I'm not aware where you found that quote from. The government is responsible for the economy.

Both on the east and western borders of our country, there are two big wars going on, and for years sanctions have been imposed on us. It's quite natural that when world crises increase, Iran is also harmed.

The Bush administration is coming to an end. The U.N. Security Council is divided and does not seem inclined to impose new sanctions on Iran. As you come to the U.N., do you feel like you are winning this confrontation with the U.S.?

We generally do not welcome confrontations. Mr. Bush's administration has not only harmed the people of the United States but people all around the world. The principles that were pursued in addressing the propaganda around the Iranian nuclear issue were wrong and incorrect to begin with. It was a huge lie.

Sen. [Barack] Obama said he would talk with America's rivals, including Iran. Sen. [John] McCain says he won't. Who would you prefer to deal with, and how would you make a fresh start with the new administration?

It doesn't make a difference who is in power in the United States. Any government that comes to power must change previous policy approaches, since big blunders have occurred that have to be corrected. The U.S. government must save on the heavy costs of military engagement and intervention, and refocus on improving the lives of people at home [and] to really speak with respect with other nations.

Mr. President, what is Iran's response to the "freeze for freeze" proposal [under which Iran would stop enriching uranium and the U.S. and its allies would stop pressing for new sanctions for a six-week pre-negotiating period]?

Last year, all the subject areas addressed by the [atomic energy] agency to us were addressed by us and resolved. Just prior to the conclusion of the report, the U.S. administration provided a series of [forged] documents [to the agency] and sort of misinformed them about certain operations. It was so funny and superficial and not in depth that a school kid could laugh at it. Of course, we don't expect any better from the U.S. administration because they have declared that they are our enemy and we are theirs.

It is interesting: Countries that have the atomic bomb themselves are all telling us not to have peaceful nuclear energy. It is one of the biggest jokes of today.

You have said repeatedly that the state of Israel should disappear from the map. What action does Iran plan to take to bring about the result of Israel's disappearance? Or is this just nothing more than talk?

Iran has made its proposal loud and clear: We're calling for free referendums for the Palestinian nation to determine their own government. This will be reflected in a proposal which we will soon submit to the U.N. secretary-general. Palestine constitutes a nation that has lived there for hundreds if not actually thousands of years. Now, with the pre-planned thinking, [Israel has] actually displaced over 5 million people from their own lands and collected other people elsewhere from the world and has put them in their place. How is it possible to recognize a state that has come about as such?

If we agree and accept that certain events had occurred during World War II, well, where did they indeed happen? In Germany, in Poland and in Great Britain. Now, what does this exactly have to do with Palestine? Why is it that the Palestinian people should pay for it?

America is criticized around the world for Guantanamo Bay. What about repression in Iran? You are cracking down on political opponents, on academics and on doctors with clinical approval to treat AIDS patients. What are you afraid of?

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