Iran’s Ahmadinejad to Jewish journalist: I’m not an anti-Semite

Former Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied he is an anti-Semite, called for the United States and the Islamic Republic to resolve their conflict through dialogue, and criticized Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, in an interview with this reporter published Monday.

Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad did not apologize for or distance himself from his past comments questioning the Holocaust and a 2006 conference he hosted that brought Holocaust deniers to Tehran.

“Look, Trump is opposed to the government of Iran — can we say that he is anti-Muslim?” Ahmadinejad said during the interview, conducted for, and published by, The Nation magazine. The former president’s aides had refused my request that he speak directly to an Israeli publication; when in office, he had urged the demise of the Jewish state.

Continued Ahmadinejad: “The violations of the Zionist regime have been censured by the United Nations. If someone else says these things, does that make him an anti-Semite?”

“You’re Jewish and I’m Muslim, and we’re talking,” he said in the telephone interview, which was conducted in Persian. “Are we fighting? Are we at war?”

“I’m opposed to actions that violate the rights of others; it makes no difference who does them,” the former president said.

Ahmadinejad also went on to criticize Iran’s military role in the Syrian Civil War, which has seen Israeli airstrikes on Iranian bases and Iranian missiles fired at Israeli territory. Asked directly about Iran’s involvement in Syria, he said “no one has the right to intervene in the affairs of others.”

The tone and content of some of Ahmadinejad’s remarks were at marked odds with the hardline positions he held and championed when president, and seemed to underline a deliberate shift in his public positioning. On social media, in speeches, and in interviews like this one, the former president has taken to styling himself an advocate of internationalism, dialogue, and universal peace.

While the former president denied that he has any political aspirations, Iran watchers believe that Ahmadinejad, who is now shunned by the regime’s ruling elite, is trying to remake his image in order to maintain his political relevance — and perhaps even return to power. Hence, perhaps, an effort to refurbish his anti-Semitic image via an interview with a Jewish journalist.

During his tenure as president from 2005 to 2013, Ahmadinejad was notorious in the West for his bellicose rhetoric on Iran’s nuclear program, his anti-Semitism, and his calls for the demise of Israel. He was derided for his claims of divine inspiration (including a 2005 statement that, while delivering a speech at the United Nations, he was surrounded by a halo of light as the audience of world leaders sat spellbound). And he was criticized for his role in the disputed 2009 presidential elections, widely seen as rigged, that won him a second term.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks during a ceremony at the nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz (photo credit: AP/Hasan Sarbakhshian/File)

Ahmadinejad’s anti-Semitism, most blatant in the 2006 “International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust” that brought David Duke and other prominent Holocaust deniers to Tehran, provoked a particularly harsh international response. When the subject was discussed in our interview, Ahmadinejad did not express regret for this conference or for his other statements questioning the Holocaust.

David Duke, center, a former leader of the U.S. white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan, and former state representative in Louisiana, speaks during Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s meeting with participants of a conference on the Holocaust, in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2006. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and anti-Semitism paved the way for the 2010 sanctions targeting Iran’s nuclear program, Abbas Milani, a professor of Iranian Studies at Stanford, told The Nation. “The world began to take seriously that he is the president of a regime that is almost unhinged.”

These days, Ahmadinejad is presenting a different face to the world. The former president’s active English-language Twitter feed, his primary means of communicating with his global audience, is filled with commentary on American sports and popular culture as well as utopian, peacenik appeals for all humanity to unite in the pursuit of justice.

For example, in an April post, the former president of Iran mourned the recent passing of rapper Nipsey Hussle. A few days later, he tweeted his hope for the swift arrival of the messianic age that will “give humanity the gift of freedom and justice.”

As tensions between the United States and Iran have continued to escalate in recent weeks, Ahmadinejad released on Twitter an open letter to US President Donald Trump calling for an end to harsh economic sanctions against Iran and providing a tutorial on the peaceful role of the “great Iranian nation” throughout history. “The two great nations of Iran and the US,” he wrote in June, echoing sentiments he expressed in his interview with me, “desire friendly relations and ties, based on mutual productive interactions. This desire is a constructive, natural and innate trend, rooted in God’s creation and the gem of human existence.”

“For the two great nations of Iran and the US, so many opportunities and solutions exist, for proximity and all-out political, economic and cultural interaction, which should rapidly be brought to the fore and employed,” he added on July 1.

It was Ahmadinejad’s tweeting, which has been widely discussed in the American media, that prompted this writer to reach out to the former president. I first approached Ahmadinejad’s media spokesperson asking to speak to the former president for “an English-language newspaper located in a country in the region that does not have ties with Iran”; Israel is a taboo subject in Iran, and I did not want to put anyone in danger by being too transparent. The spokesman demurred, saying that Israeli media was out of the question, but added that Ahmadinejad would be available for an interview, in Persian, with an American publication, and suggested The Nation. While I never said explicitly that I live in Jerusalem, that information is readily available, and I presume the spokesman looked me up before agreeing.

Our nearly ninety-minute interview touched on a wide range of topics, including internal Iranian politics, foreign policy, religion, and the similarities between the former president and “America’s Ahmadinejad,” as Trump has been sometimes been called. Throughout, Ahmadinejad was polite and patient with my sometimes fumbling Persian. However, I came away concerned about having been somewhat manipulated — no surprise given Ahmadinejad’s skills as a politician and what, it seems, was really at stake in our interview.

Ahmadinejad’s seeming change of heart — or, at least, change in rhetoric — comes as his political position in Iran is increasingly precarious.

While Ahmadinejad was at first strongly backed by the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the ultimate arbiter in Iranian politics and society, by his second term he was locked in a power struggle with Khamenei and Iran’s conservative clerical establishment; this struggle has only continued after Ahmadinejad left office.

Ahmadinejad tried and failed to place a close adviser as his successor in the presidency, and his own attempt to run for the office again in 2017, in defiance of Khamenei’s explicit “recommendation” not to do so, was similarly blocked. Several members of Ahmadinejad’s inner circle have also been arrested, and rumors recently circulated that the former president himself had been apprehended by the authorities.

Ahmadinejad has publicly accused prominent figures from across the Iranian political spectrum of corruption, including in a dramatic speech to the parliament in 2013. In his interview with The Nation, the former president went so far as to blame ongoing protests in Iranian cities on the government’s mishandling of the economy, and said he saw no difference between today’s demonstrations and those that precipitated the Islamic Revolution.

“Wherever people demand their rights, it is correct. What’s important is that the demand for rights be satisfied,” he said, a shocking equation of Khamenei with the dictatorial Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi toppled in 1979.

“When Ahmadinejad was president, I advised people not to interview him,” Tel Aviv University Iran expert David Menashri told The Nation. “He used the Western media to propagate his ideas.” Similarly today, Ahmadinejad is using social media and interviews in order to maintain his relevance in Iran. While the former president himself denied that he has political aspirations, experts surmised that, like many figures inside and outside the country, Ahmadinejad is positioning himself for the day after the Supreme Leader, who is 80, leaves the stage, or even after the fall of the current regime.

“To be an alternative they think they need the support of the West and the United States,” Milani, the Stanford professor, told The Nation. “I think he’s trying to bring down the level of rancor and animosity that existed between him and the United States, in the same way that he’s trying to position himself domestically.”

While many have dismissed the possibility that Ahmadinejad could make a comeback, saying that his legacy is too bitter for Iranians to give him a second chance, Menashri argues otherwise. “Ahmadinejad has not said his last word in Iranian politics,” he said.

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