(2 of 4)
Over the course of the 45-minute interview, he was serious, smiling and cocky--evidence of a self-assurance that borders on arrogance. His brown eyes locked onto mine when he made a point about Iran's nuclear program. His rhetoric was measured, but he was adamant on the issues that have made him so controversial. He dismissed U.N. demands that Iran suspend its uranium-enrichment program but said, "We are opposed to the development of nuclear weapons. We think it is of no use and that it is against the interests of nations." He waved a hand dismissively when I couldn't grasp his logic in questioning the Holocaust. Asked to defend his claim that the Holocaust was a myth, he went on a rambling rant, claiming that those who try to do "independent research" on the Holocaust have been imprisoned. "About historical events," he says, "there are different views."
He was more generous and accommodating when it came to discussing the U.S., saying his May letter to Bush was a genuine effort to reach out. He spoke highly of Americans, based on his trip to New York. "My general impression is that the people of the United States are good people ... The people of the United States are also seeking peace, love, friendship and justice."
Whether such talk will be enough to save the two nations from a confrontation remains to be seen. Nor is it clear that Ahmadinejad's own job is secure. Impatience with his failure to fix Iran's economy is growing, and there is some speculation that the Old Guard may try to push him out. But until then, he seems likely to keep challenging the West, stirring things up. He aspires to unite Muslim opinion and make Iran the dominant player in the Middle East, restoring the country to its ancient imperial glory.
Ahmadinejad's handlers said our interview would last only 30 minutes, but he let it go on despite their protests. At last we were passed a note: "The time is over and Mr. President has an important meeting with the Cuban President. Goodbye." Ahmadinejad bolted from the room, swapped his jacket for a suit coat and climbed into a Mercedes. As the car pulled away, he sat in the back with an aide, smiled one more time and threw us a final wave.
"WE DO NOT NEED ATTACKS"
On the eve of a visit to the U.S., Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks to TIME's Scott MacLeod about debating President Bush, pursuing nuclear energy and denying the Holocaust
TIME: What were your impressions of New York during your visit to the U.S. last year?
AHMADINEJAD: Unfortunately we didn't have any contact with the people of the United States. We were not in touch with the people. But my general impression is that the people of the United States are good people. Everywhere in the world, people are good.
TIME: Did you visit the site of the World Trade Center?
AHMADINEJAD: It was not necessary. It was widely covered in the media.
TIME: You recently invited President Bush to a televised debate. If he were sitting where I am sitting, what would you say, man to man?