He insisted that his government does not want an atomic bomb — something he has said in the past — and that Iran is only seeking peace and a nuclear-weapons-free world. He repeatedly sidestepped questions on when Iran would resume talks on its disputed nuclear program, and he said anti-nuclear sanctions against his government would have no effect.
Appearing calm and self-assured on his seventh trip to the United States, the Iranian president showed every sign of being in command of himself and prepared to deflect questions about his government’s harsh suppression of opposition forces after last year’s disputed election that returned him to a second term.
“The United States‘ administrations … must recognize that Iran is a big power,” he said. “Having said that, we consider ourselves to be a human force and a cultural power and hence a friend of other nations. We have never sought to dominate others or to violate the rights of any other country.
“Those who insist on having hostilities with us, kill and destroy the option of friendship with us in the future, which is unfortunate because it is clear the future belongs to Iran and that enmities will be fruitless.”
Over the years, Mr. Ahmadinejad has become more articulate and polished. He wore a gray pinstriped suit and a pinstriped white shirt, open with no tie, for the interview, conducted in an East Side hotel not far from the United Nations.
A few blocks away, dozens of protesters demonstrated with tape across their mouths to symbolize what they consider to be the oppressive nature of the Iranian government. The nonprofit Israeli education group Stand With Us organized the rally, one of many expected outside the United Nations and elsewhere in the city before Mr. Ahmadinejad leaves Friday.
In the interview in a room crowded with aides, bodyguards and Iranian journalists, the Iranian leader projected an air of innocence, saying his country’s quest to process ever greater amounts of uranium is reasonable for its expanding civilian power program, omitting that the watchdog U.N. atomic agency involved has found Iran keeping secrets from its investigators on several occasions, including secret research sites.
He also did not acknowledge that the leaders of the political opposition in Iran have been harassed and that government opponents risk violence and arrest if they try to assemble. He did allow that there have been some judicial “mistakes.”
Mr. Ahmadinejad argued that the opposition Green Movement, which largely has been forced underground, continues to enjoys rights in Iran, but he said that, in the end, it must respect “majority rule.” He also disavowed any knowledge of the fate of a retired FBI employee, Robert Levinson, who vanished inside Iran in 2007, saying the trail will be followed up by a joint U.S.-Iranian committee.
Government opponents “have their activities that are ongoing, and they also express their views publicly. They have several parties, as well as several newspapers, and many newspapers and publications. And so there are really no restrictions of such nature,” the president said.
He did not mention that many newspapers have been closed down and that prominent opposition figures were put in prison and then tried after tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets claiming that the election that put Mr. Ahmadinejad back in power in 2009 was fraudulent and stolen.
The public appearances of his rivals Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi have been severely restricted, and their offices recently were raided by police.
Mr. Ahmadinejad said Iran is more freer than some other countries. “I believe that when we discuss the subject of freedoms and liberty, it has to be done on a comparative basis and to keep in mind that democracy at the end of the day means the rule of the majority, so the minority cannot rule.”