November 14, 2020
The former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has not left the country’s political scene. The forthcoming presidential election in 2021 along with economic frustrations over Hassan Rouhani’s administration in the past three and half years have once again attracted attention to Ahmadinejad as a possible candidate in the presidential race.
Unlike other former presidents, he has a different perspective towards the region. It is reported that Ahmadinejad was rare among Iranian officials who opposed the country’s interference in Syrian affairs from the start of protests against president Bashar Assad’s regime. It was, however, the Supreme Leader who ordered the army to act upon preventing Assad’s downfall.
In contrast to harsh rhetoric used by other Iranian top officials against countries in the region, in particular Saudi Arabia, Ahmadinejad recently sent a letter to Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, asking for direct negotiations aimed at de-escalating regional tensions.
In an exclusive interview with the Independent Persian, Ahmadinejad maintains that priority should be given to détente and establishing favorable relations with Saudi Arabia devoid of foreign involvement.
Ahmadinejad’s name in Iran’s political arena has always been accompanied with controversy. It derives in part from his own different performance and attitude, and in part from his particular relationship with the media. But Iran’s former president is adamant that one changes with the passage of time.
In a live Instagram interview with Camelia Entekhabifard, Chief Editor of Independent Persian, Ahmadinejad talks about Iran’s internal and international policies, the coronavirus pandemic and presidential elections in Iran and the United States:
Camelia Entekhabifard: Mr. Ahmadinejad, along with Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, a number of analysts refer to Iran’s issues with its neighbors – in particular Saudi Arabia – as an obstacle on the way of Tehran’s normalization of its relations with the rest of the world. You have repeatedly visited Saudi Arabia and were a guest of King Abdullah at the Makkah Conference. It seemed at the time that the bilateral relationship was on the way of improvement. What are the obstacles that have prevented Iranian presidents from improving relations with Saudi Arabia over the past 41 years?
Ahmadinejad: As you said, Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia is of utmost importance and a decisive factor in the affairs of our region. The nature of this relationship greatly influences world affairs as well. There are two issues that have adversely affected the bilateral relationship. The first is the element of rivalry. Wherever we have indulged in rivalry, we both suffered from the brunt of it. And the region has also paid for it. There is no winner in such rivalries; there are only losers. These rivalries should transform into constructive cooperation and friendly and brotherly relations. This would be to the benefit of both countries, the region and the world at large.
The other problem is other countries’ interference in the region. A considerable part of our relations is influenced by others. I think both sides should once and for all decide to transform rivalry to cooperation and friendship and not allow any other player to interfere in our bilateral relations.
We share far more than what we differ. I have visited Saudi Arabia several times, taken part in the Gulf Cooperation Council, travelled to all Gulf countries and extended my hand of friendship to all. We tried to strengthen and develop our brotherly relations, and forged cooperation with them. But mistakes on both sides turned relations cold again.
Entekhabifard: Does it mean that forging relations between Iran and the West would face obstacles until such time that the country improves its relationship with regional governments particularly Saudi Arabia? What strategy do you suggest for Iran to exit its current isolation?
Ahmadinejad: If Iran’s foreign relations are hostage to its relations with regional countries, then this would constitute interference by others in our regional affairs. We are brothers who have lived side by side for thousands of years. We should live with each other now regardless of what others think and what plans other countries have for our region.
Entekhabifard: What concerns does Iran have over its relations with its neighbors?
Ahmadinejad: There are no concerns. We should only set aside our past problems and stand shoulder to shoulder, extend our brotherly hands to each other and resolve problems.
Entekhabifard: What are your views about normalization of relations between the Arab governments of the region and Israel? Could it be due to their frustration over any improvement of relations with Iran? How do you assess recent developments in the region vis-a- vis Israel?
Ahmadinejad: There are two points here. If we intend to attach our problems to others, there would always be such problems.
The fact that these countries have established diplomatic relations with Israel is not of much importance. There were many others before them that did the same including those that have the right of veto in the United Nations Security Council that shape its main components. The problem is not resolved. The problem of Palestine is an internal issue that belongs to Palestinians. After all, it is home to people who want the right of self-rule. There are refugees, too. They want to have their own sovereign government. These problems have to be addressed. It may be that some of our neighbors say that such a step was taken with Iran in mind. This would not help in resolving the situation. We are neighbors whatever the circumstances. You cannot eliminate that or remove it from the geographical map. We have no choice but to live together as brothers and friends. As a result, I think whoever embarks on this important path will go down in history in good light.
Entekhabifard: The hot topic of the day is the US presidential election. Joe Biden – the president-elect – was vice president during the entire period of the Obama administration, had been for years chair of US Senate’s Foreign Committee, knows the region and has personal friendships with some of the Middle East’s kings and leaders. He has clearly said that one of the policies of his administration would be de-escalating tensions in the region. Perhaps we could say that Iran will find opportunities under Biden’s administration.
What advice do you have for Iranian politicians for using this opportunity in order to reduce US sanctions against the Iranian population and the improvement of bilateral relations? Is there a realistic chance for it? What are your views and your advice for Iranian officials?
Ahmadinejad: Who decides US foreign policies is a broad question. I do not think that presidents have a major role in forging such policies, or if they do, it is limited. These policies should change.
Then comes the question of neighborly relations. Nobody welcomes tensions, but expecting a foreign hand from thousands of kilometers away to alleviate the existing tensions is giving the opportunity to the very same external elements that history has shown have never intended to resolve problems. On the contrary, they have constantly attempted to intensify them.
Regardless of who resides (in the White House), we are neighbors and should resolve our differences among ourselves. Should we expect someone else to come around (to solve our problems)? That other person would most certainly act on its own interest. After all, one of the main markets for American arms is our region. What are arms and armament for? Arms are not intended for détente. To sell arms, there must be tensions. If they really seek peace, they should first, not sell arms and second, not interfere in our affairs. We resolve our differences among ourselves. We are brothers, friends, share the same culture, live in the same region and are neighbors.
Entekhabifard: What solution do you propose?
Ahmadinejad: Iran and Saudi Arabia should put their rivalries aside and not give external elements the opportunity to interfere. Whatever side takes the initiative for solving the existing problems has done the people of the region and the world great service.
Entekhabifard: So along with resolving issues regarding Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, do you believe Tehran’s foreign policy’s priority should be set on removing differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
Ahmadinejad: Do not attach it to international issues. We should keep friendly relations with Saudi Arabia under all circumstances. Our differences work against both countries. Neither Saudi nor Iran has benefitted from the present stand-off. If current problems with Saudi Arabia are resolved, other outstanding issues with other Gulf countries will be resolved as well.
Entekhabifard: What solution do you offer for Iran’s exit from the current US sanctions? The US presidential administration will change on January 20, but Trump has announced new sanctions against Iran in the 70 days that have remained of his presidency. What suggestions do you have for the Iranian government to ease the pressure of sanctions on the people?
Ahmadinejad:I have suggestions that I shall produce in time.
Entekhabifard: Can’t you tell us now?
Ahmadinejad: I believe it is still too soon (to reveal them).
Entekhabifard: Would Rouhani be able to revive the nuclear deal in the months left to his administration?
Ahmadinejad: You should put this to the people.
Entekhabifard: How do you see problems that Iranians are facing today? Are they the outcome of US sanctions or performance of Rouhani’s government?
Ahmadinejad: I think they move together and are part of the same package.
Entekhabifard: What shortcomings do you see on the part of the government that you believe have moved along with the sanctions?
Ahmadinejad: One unified project is being executed. There are no two separate projects.
Entekhabifard: A few months into the new US administration, Iran will have its own presidential election. Are you going to nominate yourself?
Ahmadinejad: I have so far not expressed an opinion about it.
Entekhabifard: …And you do not wish to express an opinion now?
Ahmadinejad: I have always been at the service of my country and my people.
Entekhabifard: Should you wish not to take part in the election, would you support a certain candidate?
Ahmadinejad: I have no views over it yet. I think we have more important national and international issues to consider before the election.
Entekhabifard: What issues?
Ahmadinejad: The world is moving fast and Iran with it, too. We have to be patient.
Entekhabifard: It seems that you have changed greatly in your attitude between the two presidential periods, is that right? And if so, how should it be interpreted?
Ahmadinejad: People should change. Could anybody stay the same throughout their life? People grow, the amplitude of their knowledge, understanding, depth and values change. People should grow and move towards perfection. I reserve the right for myself to move in that direction.
Entekhabifard: You wrote a letter to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and asked for a meeting in Saudi Arabia in order to resolve current differences between the two countries. Has he received the letter? Have you had any other correspondence with him? What steps have the United Nations taken in order to relay your message to the Crown Prince?
Ahmadinejad: The letters that I have written have all been published in full. My letter was about Yemen and not a meeting in Saudi Arabia, but I am still waiting to hear from them. The topic (of the letter) was Yemen. The country is in the grip of a difficult situation; people are under pressure, women and children get killed, there is no medical facility, there is poverty and the country’s infrastructure is being destroyed. In my letter to Crown Prince and Mr. Badreddin (leader of Yemen’s Houthi militias), I have invited them to reconciliation and understanding.
Entekhabifard: Have you received a particular answer?
Ahmadinejad: Some have replied and we are still waiting for others.
Entekhabifard: What are your views about the US presidential election and the current conflicts there? Do you see similarities between this election and protests following Iran’s presidential election of 2009?
Ahmadinejad: I have no opinion about the US election because it is a matter for Americans. They have to pursue the matter and the will of the people should prevail. But from watching US developments, I can tell that there are behind the scene differences within the main administration. What we see is the result of conflict within the ruling class.
Entekhabifard: What do you think of Iran’s involvement in Syria? There are 12 million Syrian refugees throughout the world and some 10 million others oppose Assad’s rule. Do you vouch for Iran’s interference in the affairs of the region or do you think that Iran could have spent its resources for its people within the country?
Ahmadinejad: I have repeatedly explained this point. You can refer to them… I fundamentally believe that nations have the right to decide their destiny, and that wherever there is a difference of opinion, it should be put to the majority decision. War and skirmishes are not a solution. They can only deepen and complicate problems further. This is the right of all peoples of the world. Whether in America, in Syria, in Iran, in Africa or Asia, the right of deciding on the destiny (of a region or a country) belongs to the people of that country and there should be no reason for war and conflict. It is true in Syria as well. I fundamentally oppose to interference.
Entekhabifard: Are you banned from traveling?
Ahmadinejad: Where to?
Entekhabifard: Out of Iran?
Ahmadinejad: No, there is no such ban. Why should there be one?
Entekhabifard: What I mean is that should you wish to travel to foreign countries, would you face any restriction or obstacles?
Ahmadinejad: No, so far I have not faced any restrictions.
Entekhabifard: How do you assess the current situation with regard to the coronavirus pandemic in Iran and Rouhani’s inability to combat the disease? Iran is among a handful countries in the world that have failed to keep the first wave of the pandemic under check. What advice do you have for the people and the government?
Ahmadinejad: It is obvious that the coronavirus was developed in a laboratory and spread in the world with political goals. I believe that those who ran the world over the past 100 years, came to the conclusion that their strategies do not work anymore. They have to make fundamental changes. One of the goals for the spread of the virus is preparing the scene for these changes. The instruction they issue in the world are vague and contradictory. Countries that follow these instructions face problems. I think the main problem in Iran is that the management of the pandemic is done according to policies issued by the World Health Organization and that is the reason for the serious problems Iran is facing in reining in the pandemic.
Entekhabifard: What advice do you have for it?
Ahmadinejad: We have scientists and experts who can speedily produce drugs to treat the coronavirus. They can also provide people and organizations with simple health guidance through which we can overcome the pandemic.