In New York for the United Nations General Assembly, Iran's tough-talking Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki sat down with NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth to discuss how he sees U.S.-Iranian relations and Iran's growing power. Excerpts:
WEYMOUTH: Do you believe there will be an Israeli or an American attack on your nuclear facilities?
If there were such an attack by Israel, would you regard it as an attack by the United States?
In the Middle East, [no one] makes a distinction between the U.S. and Israel.
Reportedly, officials in your administration have talked about shutting down the Strait of Hormuz in the event of an attack.
A number of American and Israeli officials express military comments and take military positions. Naturally, they will get military responses.
President Bush called Iran part of the Axis of Evil. Then, last July he sent one of the top U.S. State Department officials, William Burns, to attend negotiations with Iran. That was a pretty big change …
We welcomed the participation by Mr. Burns in the Geneva talks. We feel that if this is the real approach taken by the U.S. right now vis-à-vis the nuclear issue, they must continue with such efforts.
So you ' re happy with the U.S. approach?
The American administration has taken the first realistic step.
Just in sending Burns or in what Burns said?
Previously, the U.S. administration attached certain provisos to their presence in the talks. [Burns's] presence in Geneva meant that those were no longer in play. An effort has started and if it is to succeed in resolving the nuclear issue, we have to take it to the next step.
But you are not going to abandon your nuclear program?
What we are doing is completely legal … For us to arrive at a mutual confidence, we need to negotiate.
But Iran is the only member of the United Nations that has talked about wiping another charter member off the face of the earth — Israel. Pakistan has the bomb, India has the bomb, but they have not threatened to annihilate another country. How do you gain confidence in a country if it says it intends to wipe another country off the face of the earth?
We do not officially recognize this regime … Going back to the nuclear issue, I will continue by saying that our activities are completely legal.
The International Atomic Energy Agency says that Iran has not reported a lot of what it has been asked for and that it is continuing its uranium enrichment.
We are continuing with enrichment, which we have every right to do.
What about the other charges in the IAEA report?
The resolutions of the U.N. Security Council [against Iran] are unlawful and illegal. Last year we responded to all the questions that were given to us by the agency. Later, it became quite clear that the questions were given to the agency by the Americans. After we were through with one set of questions, the Americans came back with new claims that they gave the agency to look into.
The U.S. ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has said that Iran is applying heavy pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki not to sign the Status of Forces Agreement [governing the presence of U.S. troops]. Is this so?
Whenever the U.S. fails in imposing their policies, they say Iran is to blame.
So you do oppose the Status of Forces Agreement?
At the end of the day, the points of view and the wishes of the [local] people have to be respected.
Do you think that Iran and the United States share any common interests in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and do you see any basis for the two countries working together in those areas?
Our position when it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan [is] we want security and stability for those countries. We are calling for the determination of the fate of those two countries to be handed over to the people and to the legally elected governments of those countries. If the U.S. has the same point of view … [it] has chosen the wrong policies to go about this. Because in six years in Iraq and seven years in Afghanistan, [the United States] has failed to materialize [its] goals. Therefore, [it] needs to fundamentally change such policies. We are saying that the American administration needs to take a correct set of decisions, and one of those decisions has to do with [setting] a timetable for pulling out the troops.
Do you think Senator Obama would be better for Iran since he has called for a withdrawal from Iraq?
Whatever candidate becomes president will have to bring about fundamental changes in U.S. policy regarding its relations with different parts of the world, including the Middle East.
I get the impression that Iran owes the Bush administration a big favor — that Iran ' s power has increased immensely thanks to the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
The difference between us and some others is that they like to interpret everything through a lens of might and power. What we like to do is to look at issues through the perspective of justice and our principled ideas and positions. We feel that perceived power in today's world cannot be the only device utilized in playing a role and being influential. The American military might has not become weakened. What is lacking on the side of the American administration … has to do with their logic. They have failed to persuade the international public opinion to see matters through their perspective.