Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared Monday that the turmoil on Wall Street was rooted in part in U.S. military intervention abroad and voiced hope that the next American administration would retreat from what he called President Bush’s “logic of force.”
He also asserted, in an interview with The Times, that Israel was doomed like “an airplane that has lost its engine” and that Western intelligence documents questioning the peaceful purpose of Iran’s nuclear program were crude forgeries.
The United Nations General Assembly opened its annual session Monday in a state of alarm over a global financial crisis. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he feared for his effort to secure increased pledges from rich nations to aid the poorest, which are already reeling from higher food and energy prices.
Before joining the annual fall debate, Ahmadinejad sounded a provocative note on the topic during a 40-minute interview with Times editors and a reporter in a Midtown Manhattan hotel suite heavily guarded by agents of the Department of Homeland Security.
“Problems do not arise suddenly,” he said. “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 . . . the war in Iraq, for example. . . . These are heavy costs.
“The world economy can no longer tolerate the budgetary deficit and the financial pressures occurring from markets here in the United States, and by the U.S. government,” he added.
Several blocks away, across from the U.N. headquarters, 3,000 people mobilized by a coalition of mostly Jewish groups protested against Ahmadinejad’s threats toward Israel and Iran’s human rights record.
And in Vienna, the chief of the U.N.'s atomic watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, accused Iran of blocking his efforts to clarify its involvement in experiments and studies consistent with the development of a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Suspicion that Iran is pursuing such weapons took center stage at last fall’s General Assembly debate and put Ahmadinejad on the spot. This year, with a divided Security Council reluctant to tighten sanctions against Iran, he appeared relaxed and confident.
“We do not believe that the U.S. policy perspective, looking at the rest of the world as a field of confrontation, will give good results,” he said.
The Iranian leader wore a gray windbreaker over a light tan shirt and a Pierre Cardin belt with gray plaid slacks. He smiled almost incessantly, even when talking about Bush, who addresses the General Assembly today. The U.S. president’s policies, the Iranian leader said, have “harmed . . . people all around the world.”
He declined to say whether he preferred to confront a Republican administration led by John McCain, who opposes negotiating with Iran, or a Democratic one headed by Barack Obama. Obama says he would talk to Iran under certain conditions. Nor did he suggest a fresh approach by Iran to Bush’s successor.
“Any [U.S.] government that comes to power must change previous policy approaches,” he said, adding that he was ready to speak with either of the candidates while in New York this week. “We’re interested in having friendly relations.”
The standoff between the United States and Iran has centered on concerns over nuclear proliferation and threats against Israel, which Ahmadinejad has said should be “wiped off the map.”
In recent remarks in Iran, he has clarified that threat. Iran, he repeated in the interview, promotes a shift in power in the Holy Land by means of elections in which Palestinian residents and returning refugees would vastly outnumber Jews and vote into power a single government over what is now Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
This single-state idea, espoused by a growing number of Palestinians, is firmly opposed by Israel and the U.S. and other Western governments trying to broker a deal for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Ahmadinejad said he would present the proposal to Ban, with whom he met later Monday.
In discussing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, the Iranian leader touched on his well-publicized refusal to accept the Holocaust as historical fact.
“Who are these people? Where did they come from?” he asked in reference to Jews who founded the state of Israel in the wake of the Nazi slaughter in Europe during World War II.
He spoke in Persian through an interpreter, whose translation of his next sentence began: “We’ve agreed. . . .” before she was cut off and corrected by Ahmadinejad:
“If we agree and accept that certain events had occurred during World War II,” came the next sentence, “well, where did they indeed happen? In Germany, in Poland . . . . Now what does this exactly have to do with Palestine? Why is it that the Palestinian people should pay for it?”
The United States and Israel accuse Iran of arming and training the Islamic militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, which attack Israel with rockets and suicide bombers and use Syria as a logistics base.
Ahmadinejad said he was not concerned about Israel’s effort, by means of indirect negotiations through Turkish mediators, to woo Syria away from its alliance with Iran. Israel wants Syria to shut down the militant groups’ operations; in return, Syria seeks a return of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967.
“We believe that the freedom of the Golan Heights is exactly what the Zionist regime does not want,” the Iranian leader said. “We think it is very unlikely it will happen as a result of the negotiations.”
Before the Iranian leader arrived at U.N. headquarters, Ban told reporters he would press him for an explanation of Iran’s stonewalling of an inquiry into its nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
The agency said it has intelligence documents from 10 countries that show Iran conducted secret uranium experiments, tested explosives and pondered bomb designs suitable for nuclear weapons. At the agency’s meeting in Vienna on Monday, ElBaradei said Iran had failed to open its records or give “credible assurances” about the nature of these activities.
In the interview, Ahmadinejad said the agency was pressing its inquiry under pressure from the United States. “All the documentation was forged,” he asserted. “In fact, it was so funny and superficial and not in depth that a school kid could laugh at it.
“The IAEA must act independently,” he said.
The United States is unlikely to win approval this week for stepped-up financial and trade sanctions against Iran because Russia opposes the idea and China is reluctant. Foreign ministers of a six-nation group monitoring Iran’s nuclear program, which also includes Britain, France and Germany, are to meet on the sidelines of the General Assembly debate.
Ahmadinejad acknowledged that the sanctions, the global financial crisis and wars in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan were hurting Iran’s oil-fueled economy, which is beset by inflation, unemployment and shortages of gasoline.
But the Iranian leader, who is seeking reelection next year, made two claims sharply at odds with what Western journalists and other independent observers find in his country: that 98% of Iranians support his government and that “we do not have poor people or people who live below the poverty line to the extremes that you find in the United States.”
Special correspondent Julia Damianova in Vienna contributed to this report.
Having his say
Read excerpts from The Times’ interview with Ahmadinejad. A22 and latimes.com/world.