NEW YORK - Hours after criticizing America so fiercely that U.S. diplomats stormed out of the U.N. General Assembly in protest, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Thursday that time has not run out for the two countries to repair their bad relationship.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Ahmadinejad claimed that explosive material and not planes brought down the World Trade Center, rejected the West's view of his country's nuclear ambitions and castigated U.S. policies from Libya to Pakistan. But he also complained that President Barack Obama never made good on a pledge to try to open a dialogue with Iran, and said he still hopes for a face-to-face meeting.
"I don't believe that this is a chance that has been completely lost," Ahmadinejad said.
The White House declined to comment on Ahmadinejad's remarks.
Ahmadinejad provoked a walkout by diplomats from more than 30 countries at the General Assembly when he attacked the U.S. and Europe as being greedy, arrogant and too ready to use military force. He has made similar waves in past gatherings in New York, but at home his powers have been weakened by Iran's ruling clerics.
That weakness was evident last week when Iran's judiciary knocked down his claim that two Americans jailed in Iran for more than two years as suspected spies could be on their way home.
When asked who is in charge in Iran as the power struggle rages, Ahmadinejad smiled disarmingly and said, "Some people don't like me very much in Iran."
The two Americans, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, ended up being released Wednesday in what Ahmadinejad said was a humanitarian gesture. He offered no proof the pair were conducting espionage but said it is beyond doubt that they illegally crossed the border an offense he added that the United States itself routinely prosecutes.
"Just the fact that they are in their families' arms is important," Ahmadinejad said.
In the case of Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent missing nearly five years in Iran, Ahmadinejad said he does not know where Levinson is. But he referred to unspecified contacts between the U.S. and Iran over the case.
"I think there was good collaboration between the intelligence apparatus in both countries," Ahmadinejad said. "I think we have reached concrete results good results and it would be good if such collaboration continues."
Authorities announced in March that Levinson's family had received proof in late 2010 that he was alive. The news touched off a hopeful round of fresh diplomacy, but there has been no word since.
On the Sept. 11 attacks, Ahmadinejad stopped short of saying the United States staged the disaster 10 years ago, but said that as an engineer, he's sure New York's twin towers were not brought down by jetliners.
"This was a systematic collapse of those towers," Ahmadinejad said. "I can say with certainty there must have been explosive material that was set off in sequence."
He said there are questions the world should resolve, and noted there are doubters in the United States as well.
"A few airplanes without previous coordination known to the security forces and the intelligence community in the United States cannot become missiles and target the heart of the United States," Ahmadinejad said.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology conducted a probe that took six years to complete of the tower collapses; the last report found that fire caused the collapse of 7 World Trade Center, a skyscraper north of the twin towers. In the collapses of the twin towers, the agency found that extreme heat from the jetliner crashes caused some steel beams to lose strength, causing further failures in the building until the entire structure succumbed.
The investigation "was the most comprehensive examination of a structural failure ever conducted," said Shyam Sunder, lead investigator of the collapse investigation and led to 40 building code changes to make safer, terror-proof skyscrapers. NIST maintains a website with its reports and computer-based animations that reconstruct its findings to reach out to the public.
Ahmadinejad was denied his request last year to visit the site of the World Trade Center collapse during his annual visit to New York for the General Assembly. Ahmadinejad said he did not ask for such a visit this year but might next year.
Noting that he had earlier called for an investigation into the cause of the Sept. 11 attacks, Ahmadinejad said lingering questions about the attacks presented Obama with an opportunity.
"We thought that the president of the United States would make up for the mistakes of the previous administration and perhaps this would have been a good starting point," Ahmadinejad said. "The current president could have said the information was incomplete or perhaps needed more investigation vis a vis the events of Sept. 11."
Ahmadinejad also said Iran remains ready to negotiate over its disputed nuclear program, and repeated the country's position that the program is for the peaceful production of energy. The U.S. and other Western powers believe Iran is aiming to build nuclear weapons, and the Islamic Republic is under four sets of Security Council Sanctions for refusing to freeze uranium enrichment.
"You all know that the nuclear issue has been turned and manipulated into a political issue," Ahmad said.
Obama took office in 2009 with hopes of improving on three decades of enmity between the U.S. and Iran, although he said from the start he had doubts about how far the effort could go. Initial outreach made little progress, which the U.S. blamed partly on the confusing layers of leadership in Iran and differences of opinion about whether to engage with the U.S.
The efforts all but stopped following Iran's bloody crackdown on demonstrators later in 2009.
"We were very much in support of change," Ahmadinejad said. "I sent a personal message to President Obama," he said. "Never received a response."
Ahmadinejad sent Obama a congratulatory letter days after his election in 2008, and another in 2010 apparently complaining about a lack of progress.
Obama probably has nothing to worry about in his re-election bid, Ahmadinejad said, and he suggested Obama need not cater to Jewish voters to ensure a victory.
"The people of the United States must make the choice and we do not wish to undertake any efforts that would impact the decision-making power of the people anywhere," Ahmadinejad said. "But I do not believe that President Obama has any serious roadblocks on his path to re-election. He really does not need to give unconditional support and leave the playing field open for the Zionists."