The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, knows how to infuriate the Western world and he did it again last week when he asked to visit ground zero. Ahmadinejad plans to be in New York this week for the U.N. General Assembly meeting. The man who questions the truth behind the Holocaust is expected to demand, once again, the elimination of Israel.
60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley spoke with Ahmadinejad on Thursday in the garden outside his office in Tehran. Pelley spoke to the president about America's angry reaction to his plan to visit the World Trade Center site. The president told 60 Minutes, in light of the objections, he wouldn't press for it.
"Sir, what were you thinking?" Pelley asked. "The World Trade Center site is the most sensitive place in the American heart, and you must have known that visiting there would be insulting to many, many Americans."
"Why should it be insulting," Ahmadinajad said.
"Well, sir, you're the head of the government of an Islamist state that the United States government says is a major exporter of terrorism around the world," Pelley replied.
"We obviously are very much against any terrorist action and any killing. And also we are very much against any plots to sow the seeds of discord among nations," Ahmadinejad said. "Usually you go to these sites to pay your respects. And also to perhaps to air your views about the root causes of such incidents."
Ahmadinejad told Pelley the U.S. and Iran could be friends, but 60 Minutes wanted to know about the growing evidence that Iranian weapons and bomb components are being used against U.S. forces in Iraq.
"It is an established fact now that Iranian bombs and Iranian know-how are killing Americans in Iraq. You have American blood on your hands. Why?" Pelley asked.
"Well, this is what the American officials are saying. Again, American officials wherever around the world that they encounter a problem which they fail to resolve, instead of accepting that, they prefer to accuse others," the president replied. "I'm very sorry that because of the wrong decisions taken by American officials, Iraqi people are being killed and also American soldiers. It's very regrettable."
"The American Army has captured Iranian missiles in Iraq. The critical elements of the explosively formed penetrator bombs that are killing so many people are coming from Iran. There's no doubt about that anymore. The denials are no longer credible, sir," Pelley pointed out.
"Very good. If I may. Are you an American politician? Am I to look at you as an American politician or a reporter? This is what the American officials are claiming," Ahmadinejad replied. "If they accuse us 1,000 times, the truth will not change."
"Are you saying that it is not the policy of this government to send weapons into Iraq? Sir, forgive me, you're smiling, but this is a very serious matter to America," Pelley said.
"Well, it's serious for us as well. I daresay it's serious for everyone," Ahmadinejad told Pelley. "It seems to me it's laughable for someone to turn a blind eye to the truth and accuse others. It doesn't help. And the reason that I'm smiling, again, it's because that the picture is so clear. But American officials refuse to see it."
Asked if he could very simply and directly say that Iran is not sending weapons to Iraq, Ahmadinejad said, "We don't need to do that. We are very much opposed to war and insecurity…"
"Is that a 'No,' sir?" Pelley asked.
"…by Iraq. It's very clear the situation. The insecurity in Iraq is detrimental to our interests," Ahmadinejad said.
President Ahmadinejad is 50, with a wife and three grown kids. He's the son of a blacksmith, said to be very religious and incorruptible. He was elected two years ago largely by rural and poor voters. Back in the 1980's, during Iraq's ruinous invasion of Iran, he was reportedly an elite Army intelligence officer in the war with Saddam Hussein.
"Mr. President, you must have rejoiced more than anyone when Saddam Hussein fell. You owe President Bush. This is one of the best things that's ever happened to your country," Pelley said.
"Once the dictator was toppled, many people were happy," Ahmadinejad agreed. "But the American government did not appropriately use this golden opportunity. They should have left the Iraqi people to go their own way and to determine their own fate."