SPIEGEL Interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
“We Are Determined”
In an interview with SPIEGEL, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discusses the Holocaust, the future of the state of Israel, mistakes made by the United States in Iraq and Tehran’s nuclear conflict with the West.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, you are a soccer fan and you like to play soccer. Will you be sitting in the stadium in Nuremberg on June 11, when the Iranian national team plays against Mexico in Germany?
Ahmadinejad: It depends. Naturally, I’ll be watching the game in any case. I don’t know yet whether I’ll be at home in front of the television set or somewhere else. My decision depends upon a number of things.
SPIEGEL: For example?
Ahmadinejad: How much time I have, how the state of various relationships are going, whether I feel like it and a number of other things.
SPIEGEL: There was great indignation in Germany when it became known that you might be coming to the soccer world championship. Did that surprise you?
Ahmadinejad: No, that’s not important. I didn’t even understand how that came about. It also had no meaning for me. I don’t know what all the excitement is about.
SPIEGEL: It concerned your remarks about the Holocaust. It was inevitable that the Iranian president’s denial of the systematic murder of the Jews by the Germans would trigger outrage.
Ahmadinejad: I don’t exactly understand the connection.
SPIEGEL: First you make your remarks about the Holocaust. Then comes the news that you may travel to Germany — this causes an uproar. So you were surprised after all?
Ahmadinejad: No, not at all, because the network of Zionism is very active around the world, in Europe too. So I wasn’t surprised. We were addressing the German people. We have nothing to do with Zionists.
SPIEGEL: Denying the Holocaust is punishable in Germany. Are you indifferent when confronted with so much outrage?
Ahmadinejad: I know that DER SPIEGEL is a respected magazine. But I don’t know whether it is possible for you to publish the truth about the Holocaust. Are you permitted to write everything about it?
SPIEGEL: Of course we are entitled to write about the findings of the past 60 years’ historical research. In our view there is no doubt that the Germans — unfortunately — bear the guilt for the murder of 6 million Jews.
Ahmadinejad: Well, then we have stirred up a very concrete discussion. We are posing two very clear questions. The first is: Did the Holocaust actually take place? You answer this question in the affirmative. So, the second question is: Whose fault was it? The answer to that has to be found in Europe and not in Palestine. It is perfectly clear: If the Holocaust took place in Europe, one also has to find the answer to it in Europe.
On the other hand, if the Holocaust didn’t take place, why then did this regime of occupation …
SPIEGEL: … You mean the state of Israel…
Ahmadinejad: … come about? Why do the European countries commit themselves to defending this regime? Permit me to make one more point. We are of the opinion that, if an historical occurrence conforms to the truth, this truth will be revealed all the more clearly if there is more research into it and more discussion about it.
SPIEGEL: That has long since happened in Germany.
Ahmadinejad: We don’t want to confirm or deny the Holocaust. We oppose every type of crime against any people. But we want to know whether this crime actually took place or not. If it did, then those who bear the responsibility for it have to be punished, and not the Palestinians. Why isn’t research into a deed that occurred 60 years ago permitted? After all, other historical occurrences, some of which lie several thousand years in the past, are open to research, and even the governments support this.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, with all due respect, the Holocaust occurred, there were concentration camps, there are dossiers on the extermination of the Jews, there has been a great deal of research, and there is neither the slightest doubt about the Holocaust nor about the fact — we greatly regret this — that the Germans are responsible for it. If we may now add one remark: the fate of the Palestinians is an entirely different issue, and this brings us into the present.
Ahmadinejad: No, no, the roots of the Palestinian conflict must be sought in history. The Holocaust and Palestine are directly connected with one another. And if the Holocaust actually occurred, then you should permit impartial groups from the whole world to research this. Why do you restrict the research to a certain group? Of course, I don’t mean you, but rather the European governments.
SPIEGEL: Are you still saying that the Holocaust is just “a myth?”
Ahmadinejad: I will only accept something as truth if I am actually convinced of it.
SPIEGEL: Even though no Western scholars harbor any doubt about the Holocaust?
Ahmadinejad: But there are two opinions on this in Europe. One group of scholars or persons, most of them politically motivated, say the Holocaust occurred. Then there is the group of scholars who represent the opposite position and have therefore been imprisoned for the most part. Hence, an impartial group has to come together to investigate and to render an opinion on this very important subject, because the clarification of this issue will contribute to the solution of global problems. Under the pretext of the Holocaust, a very strong polarization has taken place in the world and fronts have been formed. It would therefore be very good if an international and impartial group looked into the matter in order to clarify it once and for all. Normally, governments promote and support the work of researchers on historical events and do not put them in prison.
SPIEGEL: Who is that supposed to be? Which researchers do you mean?
Ahmadinejad: You would know this better than I; you have the list. There are people from England, from Germany, France and from Australia.
SPIEGEL: You presumably mean, for example, the Englishman David Irving, the German-Canadian Ernst Zündel, who is on trial in Mannheim, and the Frenchman Georges Theil, all of whom deny the Holocaust.
Ahmadinejad: The mere fact that my comments have caused such strong protests, although I’m not a European, and also the fact that I have been compared with certain persons in German history indicates how charged with conflict the atmosphere for research is in your country. Here in Iran you needn’t worry.
SPIEGEL: Well, we are conducting this historical debate with you for a very timely purpose. Are you questioning Israel’s right to exist?
Ahmadinejad: Look here, my views are quite clear. We are saying that if the Holocaust occurred, then Europe must draw the consequences and that it is not Palestine that should pay the price for it. If it did not occur, then the Jews have to go back to where they came from. I believe that the German people today are also prisoners of the Holocaust. Sixty million people died in the Second World War. World War II was a gigantic crime. We condemn it all. We are against bloodshed, regardless of whether a crime was committed against a Muslim or against a Christian or a Jew. But the question is: Why among these 60 million victims are only the Jews the center of attention?
SPIEGEL: That’s just not the case. All peoples mourn the victims claimed by the Second World War, Germans and Russians and Poles and others as well. Yet, we as Germans cannot absolve ourselves of a special guilt, namely for the systematic murder of the Jews. But perhaps we should now move on to the next subject.
Ahmadinejad: No, I have a question for you. What kind of a role did today’s youth play in World War II?
Ahmadinejad: Why should they have feelings of guilt toward Zionists? Why should the costs of the Zionists be paid out of their pockets? If people committed crimes in the past, then they would have to have been tried 60 years ago. End of story! Why must the German people be humiliated today because a group of people committed crimes in the name of the Germans during the course of history?
SPIEGEL: The German people today can’t do anything about it. But there is a sort of collective shame for those deeds done in the German name by our fathers or grandfathers.
Ahmadinejad: How can a person who wasn’t even alive at the time be held legally responsible?
SPIEGEL: Not legally but morally.
Ahmadinejad: Why is such a burden heaped on the German people? The German people of today bear no guilt. Why are the German people not permitted the right to defend themselves? Why are the crimes of one group emphasized so greatly, instead of highlighting the great German cultural heritage? Why should the Germans not have the right to express their opinion freely?
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we are well aware that German history is not made up of only the 12 years of the Third Reich. Nevertheless, we have to accept that horrible crimes have been committed in the German name. We also own up to this, and it is a great achievement of the Germans in post-war history that they have grappled critically with their past.
Ahmadinejad: Are you also prepared to tell that to the German people?
SPIEGEL: Oh yes, we do that.
Ahmadinejad: Then would you also permit an impartial group to ask the German people whether it shares your opinion? No people accepts its own humiliation.
SPIEGEL: All questions are allowed in our country. But of course there are right-wing radicals in Germany who are not only anti-Semitic, but xenophobic as well, and we do indeed consider them a threat.
Ahmadinejad: Let me ask you one thing: How much longer can this go on? How much longer do you think the German people have to accept being taken hostage by the Zionists? When will that end — in 20, 50, 1,000 years?
SPIEGEL: We can only speak for ourselves. DER SPIEGEL is nobody’s hostage; SPIEGEL does not deal only with Germany’s past and the Germans’ crimes. We’re not Israel’s uncritical ally in the Palestian conflict. But we want to make one thing very clear: We are critical, we are independent, but we won’t simply stand by without protest when the existential right of the state of Israel, where many Holocaust survivors live, is being questioned.
Ahmadinejad: Precisely that is our point. Why should you feel obliged to the Zionists? If there really had been a Holocaust, Israel ought to be located in Europe, not in Palestine.
SPIEGEL: Do you want to resettle a whole people 60 years after the end of the war?
Ahmadinejad: Five million Palestinians have not had a home for 60 years. It is amazing really: You have been paying reparations for the Holocaust for 60 years and will have to keep paying up for another 100 years. Why then is the fate of the Palestinians no issue here?
SPIEGEL: The Europeans support the Palestinians in many ways. After all, we also have an historic responsibility to help bring peace to this region finally. But don’t you share that responsibility?
Ahmadinejad: Yes, but aggression, occupation and a repetition of the Holocaust won’t bring peace. What we want is a sustainable peace. This means that we have to tackle the root of the problem. I am pleased to note that you are honest people and admit that you are obliged to support the Zionists.
SPIEGEL: That’s not what we said, Mr. President.
Ahmadinejad: You said Israelis.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we’re talking about the Holocaust because we want to talk about the possible nuclear armament of Iran — which is why the West sees you as a threat.
Ahmadinejad: Some groups in the West enjoy calling things or people a threat. Of course you’re free to make your own judgment.
SPIEGEL: The key question is: Do you want nuclear weapons for your country?
Ahmadinejad: Allow me to encourage a discussion on the following question: How long do you think the world can be governed by the rhetoric of a handful of Western powers? Whenever they hold something against someone, they start spreading propaganda and lies, defamation and blackmail. How much longer can that go on?
SPIEGEL: We’re here to find out the truth. The head of state of a neighboring country, for example, told SPIEGEL: “They are very keen on building the bomb.” Is that true?
Ahmadinejad: You see, we conduct our discussions with you and the European governments on an entirely different, higher level. In our view, the legal system whereby a handful of countries force their will on the rest of the world is discriminatory and unstable. One-hundred and thirty-nine countries, including us, are members of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) in Vienna. Both the statutes of IAEA and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well as all security agreements grant the member countries the right to produce nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes. That is the legitimate legal right of any people. Beyond this, however, IAEA was also established to promote the disarmament of those powers that already possessed nuclear weapons. And now look at what’s happening today: Iran has had an excellent cooperation with IAEA. We have had more than 2,000 inspections of our plants, and the inspectors have obtained more than 1,000 pages of documentation from us. Their cameras are installed in our nuclear centers. IAEA has emphasized in all its reports that there are no indications of any irregularities in Iran. That is one side of this matter.
SPIEGEL: IAEA doesn’t quite share your view of this matter.
Ahmadinejad: But the other side is that there are a number of countries that possess both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. They use their atomic weapons to threaten other peoples. And it is these powers who say that they are worried about Iran deviating from the path of peaceful use of atomic energy. We say that these powers are free to monitor us if they are worried. But what these powers say is that the Iranians must not complete the nuclear fuel cycle because deviation from peaceful use might then be possible. What we say is that these countries themselves have long deviated from peaceful usage. These powers have no right to talk to us in this manner. This order is unjust and unsustainable.
SPIEGEL: But, Mr. President, the key question is: How dangerous will this world become if even more countries become nuclear powers — if a country like Iran, whose president makes threats, builds the bomb in a crisis-ridden region?
Ahmadinejad: We’re fundamentally opposed to the expansion of nucleaar-weapons arsenals. This is why we have proposed the formation of an unbiased organization and the disarmament of the nuclear powers. We don’t need any weapons. We’re a civilized, cultured people, and our history shows that we have never attacked another country.
SPIEGEL: Iran doesn’t need the bomb that it wants to build?
Ahmadinejad: It’s interesting to note that European nations wanted to allow the shah’s dictatorship the use of nuclear technology. That was a dangerous regime. Yet those nations were willing to supply it with nuclear technology. Ever since the Islamic Republic has existed, however, these powers have been opposed to it. I stress once again, we don’t need any nuclear weapons.
We stand by our statements because we’re honest and act legally. We’re no fraudsters. We only want to claim our legitimate right. Incidentally, I never threatened anyone — that, too, is part of the propaganda machine that you’ve got running against me.
SPIEGEL: If this were so, shouldn’t you be making an effort to ensure that no one need fear your producing nuclear weapons that you might use against Israel, thus possibly unleashing a world war? You’re sitting on a tinderbox, Mr. President.
Ahmadinejad: Allow me to say two things. No people in the region are afraid of us. And no one should instill fear in these peoples. We believe that if the United States and these two or three European countries did not interfere, the peoples in this region would live peacefully together as they did in the thousands of years before. In 1980, it was also the nations of Europe and the United States that encouraged Saddam Hussein to attack us.
Our stance with respect to Palestine is clear. We say: Allow those to whom this country belongs to express their opinion. Let Jews, Christians and Muslims say what they think. The opponents of this proposal prefer war and threaten the region. Why are the United States and these two or three European nations opposed to this? I believe that those who imprison Holocaust researchers prefer war to peace. Our stance is democratic and peaceful.
SPIEGEL: The Palestinians have long gone a step further than you and recognize Israel as a fact, while you still wish to erase it from the map. The Palestinians are ready to accept a two-state solution while you deny Israel its right to existence.
Ahmadinejad: You’re wrong. You saw that the Palestinian people elected Hamas in free elections. We argue that neither you nor we should claim to speak for the Palestian people. The Palestinians themselves should say what they want. In Europe it is customary to call a referendum on any issue. We should also give the Palestinians the opportunity to express their opinion.
SPIEGEL: The Palestinians have the right to their own state, but in our view the Israelis naturally have the same right.
Ahmadinejad: Where did the Israelis come from?
SPIEGEL: Well, if we tried to work out where people have come from, the Europeans would have to return to east Africa where all humans originated.
Ahmadinejad: We’re not talking about the Europeans; we’re talking about the Palestinians. The Palestinians were there, in Palestine. Now 5 million of them have become refugees. Don’t they have a right to live?
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, doesn’t there come a time when one should accept that the world is the way it is and that we must accept the status quo? The war against Iraq has put Iran in a favorable position. The United States has suffered a de facto defeat in Iraq. Isn’t it now time for Iran to become a constructive power of peace in the Middle East? Which would mean giving up its nuclear plans and inflammatory talk?
Ahmadinejad: I’m wondering why you’re adopting and fanatically defending the stance of the European politicians. You’re a magazine, not a government. Saying that we should accept the world as it is would mean that the winners of World War II would remain the victorious powers for another 1,000 years and that the German people would be humiliated for another 1,000 years. Do you think that is the correct logic?
SPIEGEL: No, that’s not the right logic, nor is it true. The Germans have played a modest, but important role in post-war developments. They do not feel as though they have been humiliated and dishonored since 1945. We are too self-confident for that. But today we want to talk about Iran’s current mission.
Ahmadinejad: Then we would accept that Palestinians are killed every day, that they die in terrorist attacks, and that houses are being destroyed. But let me say something about Iraq. We have always favored peace and security in the region. For eight years, the Western countries provided arms to Saddam in the war against us, including chemical weapons, and gave him political support. We were against Saddam and suffered severely because of him, so we’re happy that he has been toppled. But we don’t accept a whole country being swallowed under the pretext of wanting to topple Saddam. More than 100,000 Iraqis have lost their lives under the rule of the occupying forces. Fortunately, the Germans haven’t been involved in this. We want security in Iraq.
SPIEGEL: But, Mr. President, who is swallowing Iraq? The United States has practically lost this war. By cooperating constructively, Iran might help the Americans consider their retreat from the country.
Ahmadinejad: This is very interesting: The Americans occupy the country, kill people, sell the oil and when they have lost, they blame others. We have very close ties to the Iraqi people. Many people on both sides of the border are related. We have lived side by side for thousands of years. Our holy pilgrimage sites are located in Iraq. Just like Iran, Iraq used to be a center of civilization.
SPIEGEL: What are you trying to say?
Ahmadinejad: We have always said that we support the popularly elected government of Iraq. But in my view the Americans are doing a bad job. They have sent us messages several times asking us for help and cooperation. They have said that we should talk together about Iraq. We publicly accepted this offer, although our people do not trust the Americans. But America has responded negatively and insulted us. Even now we’re contributing to security in Iraq. We will hold talks only if the Americans change their behavior.
SPIEGEL: Do you enjoy provoking the Americans and the rest of the world now and then?
Ahmadinejad: No, I’m not insulting anyone. The letter that I wrote to Mr. Bush was polite.
SPIEGEL: We don’t mean insult, but provoke.
Ahmadinejad: No, we feel animosity toward no one. We’re concerned about the American soldiers who die in Iraq. Why do they have to die there? This war makes no sense. Why is there war when there is reason as well?
SPIEGEL: Is your letter to the president also a gesture toward the Americans that you wish to enter into direct negotiations?
Ahmadinejad: We clearly stated our position in this letter on how we view the problems in the world. Some powers have befouled the political atmosphere in the world because they consider lies and fraud to be legitimate. In our view that is very bad. We believe that all people deserve respect. Relationships have to be regulated on the basis of justice. When justice reigns, peace reigns. Unjust conditions aren’t sustainable, even if Ahmadinejad does not criticize them.
SPIEGEL: This letter to the American president includes a passage about Sept. 11, 2001. The quote: “How could such an operation be planned and implemented without the coordination with secret and security services or without the far-reaching infiltration of these services?” Your statements always include so many innuendos. What is that supposed to mean? Did the CIA help Mohammed Atta and the other 18 terrorists conduct their attacks?
Ahmadinejad: No, that’s not what I meant. We think that they should just say who is to blame. They should not use Sept. 11 as an excuse to launch a military attack against the Middle East. They should take those who are responsible for the attacks to court. We’re not opposed to that; we condemned the attacks. We condemn any attack against innocent people.
SPIEGEL: In this letter you also write that Western liberalism has failed. What makes you say that?
Ahmadinejad: You see, for example you have a thousand definitions of the Palestian problem and you offer all sorts of different definitions of democracy in its various forms. It does not make sense that a phenomenon depends on the opinions of many individuals who are free to interpret the phenomenon as they wish. You can’t solve the problems of the world that way. We need a new approach. Of course we want the free will of the people to reign, but we need sustainable principles that enjoy universal acceptance — such as justice. Iran and the West agree on this.
SPIEGEL: What role can Europe play in the resolution of the nuclear conflict, and what do you expect of Germany?
Ahmadinejad: We have always cultivated good relations with Europe, especially with Germany. Our two peoples like each other. We’re eager to deepen this relationship.
Europe has made three mistakes with respect to our people. The first mistake was to support the shah’s government. This has left our people disappointed and discontent. However, by offering asylum to Imam Khomeini, France earned a special position that it lost again later. The second mistake was to support Saddam in his war against us. The truth is that our people expected Europe to be on our side, not against us. The third mistake was Europe’s stance on the nuclear issue. Europe will be the big loser and will achieve nothing. We don’t want to see that happen.
SPIEGEL: What will happen now in the conflict between the West and Iran?
Ahmadinejad: We understand the Americans’ logic. They suffered damage as a result of the victory of the Islamic Revolution. But we’re puzzled why some European countries are opposed to us. I sent out a message on the nuclear issue, asking why the Europeans were translating the Americans’ words for us. After all, they know that our actions are aimed toward peace. By siding with Iran, the Europeans would serve their own and our interests. But they will suffer only damage if they oppose us. For our people is strong and determined.
The Europeans risk losing their position in the Middle East entirely, and they are ruining their reputation in other parts of the world. The others will think that the Europeans aren’t capable of solving problems.
SPIEGEL: Mr. President, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Stefan Aust, Gerhard Spörl and Dieter Bednarz in Tehran.