TEHRAN — Like so many of his generation, Mohsen Rezai is a fighter.
Before Iran's Islamic Revolution, he was a member of an underground organization fighting against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's regime. Afterward, Rezai helped found and lead the Revolutionary Guard, and he was a warrior in the 1980s war against Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army.
In recent years, he launched two of Iran's most acclaimed news websites, which spoke out against the country's feuding conservative and reformist factions.
Now, he's the only conservative among three candidates running against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is seeking reelection to the presidency of the Islamic Republic. Although Rezai was long a man of war, he's convinced he is the person to calm relations between Iran and the international community.
"It's the civilians and politicians who try to militarize the society," he said in an interview with The Times at one of his Tehran campaign offices. "It's not the military people. Take Ahmadinejad. He was in the war at the front for only two or three months. It's the military people who want peace."
Do you think you have a chance to win?
Yes, because I have the proper analysis and understanding of Iran's troubles in its domestic policies and foreign relations. People are hungry and are tired of undelivered promises, and of fighting between the factions.
I'm neither extremist nor passive. I express my stances and criticize both passive and extremist groups, and I tell my audience that electing [reformists] Mir-Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi means a return to the past. A weakened version of former [reformist] President Mohammad Khatami cannot deliver anything at all. And if this incumbent president continues, it will lead you to the precipice.
What mistakes in foreign policy have been made?
Ahmadinejad was too aggressive, just the opposite of too passive. What was the point of this Holocaust denial? It served the interests of our enemies and opponents. It's something from World War II!
What do you think of Iran's relations with the U.S.?
In the past they have done wrong to us. But the Obama administration represents a social movement in America that's in favor of peace and not forcing other people to do what America wants.
I propose to put together a package of eight or nine topics that the U.S. and Iran would work toward. What is important is to just start the talks. It can be on drug trafficking, it can be anything, but the idea is just to start some kind of dialogue. If we solve one or two problems, we're on our way.
How would you resolve the disagreement between Iran and the West over the nuclear program?
We should create a public stock company shared with European and Western companies, but with Iran having controlling shares. That way they can feel confident our program is peaceful and we can keep on making our scientific progress, so that everything is under the nose of the Western companies while the management is in Iranian hands.
What did you learn from the Iran-Iraq war?
First of all, that war is a terrible thing, that we should do everything to avoid war. Look at what happened to us, the chemical weapons attacks on Iranian cities and Halabja [in Iraq]. War is a terrible thing. I saw dead people and crushed children, families destroyed and fleeing from their homes, here in Iran but also there in Iraq.
I also learned the value of unity. The war created a fusion between the population and the state. Everybody was together and everybody was united. I learned the value of self-sacrifice and martyrdom.
You were among those charged by an Argentine judge as responsible for the 1990s bombings of Jewish and Israeli sites in Buenos Aires. Would those charges impede your presidency?
First off, these charges were a sheer lie. And there were other people mentioned too, maybe 20, in that file. Anyway I've traveled outside of Iran a lot in these last few years, including to Iraq and other places and have had no problems.
What do you like or dislike about the West?
Five or six years ago I was in Europe and visited Italy, France and Germany. I walked through the streets and spent time with ordinary people. At the time I wrote a letter to [Iranian supreme leader Ali] Khamenei saying here I found Islam without Muslims.
If the people there acted toward the rest of the world the way they behave toward each other, we would have a lot fewer problems.
However, there's too much individualism in the West. This is what has deepened the West's economic collapse. This can be reformed. We can help them correct this aspect of the West.