NEW YORK -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Sunday that "the future belongs to Iran," and challenged the United States to accept that his country has a major role in the world.
The comments came in an hour long interview with The Associated Press on the first day of his visit to the United States to attend the annual General Assembly of the United Nations this week.
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, 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 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 United Nations 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."
Ahmadinejad argued that the opposition Green Movement, which has largely been forced underground, continues to enjoys rights in Iran but 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 him back in power in 2010 was fraudulent and stolen.
The public appearances of his rivals Mir Houssein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have been severely restricted and their offices recently were raided by police.
Ahmadinejad said Iran is more free 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."
He added: "In Iran I think nobody loses their job because of making a statement that reflects their opinion. ... From this point of view, conditions in Iran are far better than in many other places in the world."
Ahmadinejad asserted that international nuclear regulators had never found proof that Iran is pursuing an atomic bomb.
"We are not afraid of nuclear weapons. The point is that if we had in fact wanted to build a nuclear bomb, we are brave enough to say that we want it. But we never do that. We are saying that the arsenal of nuclear bombs (worldwide) have to be destroyed as well," he said.
The U.S. accuses Iran of hiding plans to build a nuclear bomb; Iran denies that and says it's working only toward building nuclear power plants.
Ahmadinejad took no personal responsibility for the fate of the three American hikers who were taken prisoner along the border with Iraq more than a year ago -- treating it as a strictly legal affair.
"We're very glad that that lady was released," he said about Sarah Shourd, who arrived in New York on Sunday and held a news conference while Ahmadinejad was being interviewed by the AP, denying she had done anything wrong.
"(Due) to the humanitarian perspective of the Islamic Republic chose to adopt on the subject, she was released on bail," Ahmadinejad said. "And we hope that the other two will soon be able to prove and provide evidence to the court that they had no ill intention in crossing the border, so that their release can also be secured."
Tying the case to Iran's assertion that eight of its citizens are being held unjustly in the United States, he said, "It certainly does not give us joy when we see people in prison, wherever in the world that may be, and even when we think of prisoners here."
His answers were translated from Farsi by an Iranian translator, but Ahmadinejad appeared to be following the questions in English and occasionally corrected his interpreter.
Asked about Levinson, Ahmadinejad hinted that his government considers it possible that the retired FBI employee had been on some "mission" when he vanished.
"Of course if it becomes clear what his goal was, or if he was indeed on a mission, then perhaps specific assistance can be given," the Iranian leader said. "For example, if he had plans to visit with a group or an individual or go to another country, he would be easier to trace in that instance."
Levinson was last seen on Iran's Kish island in March 2007 where he had gone to seek information on cigarette smuggling for a client of his security firm. He had been an FBI agent in New York and Florida before retiring in 1998. He has not been seen since. Iran says it has no information on him.
Overall, Ahmadinejad said that Iran's course is set and the rest of the world needs to accept it.
Another round of international pressure in the form of sanctions would only be futile, he said. "If they were to be effective, I should not be sitting here right now."
The U.N. Security Council already has imposed four rounds of sanctions against Iran to try to pressure Ahmadinejad's government to suspend enrichment and return to negotiations with the six countries trying to resolve the dispute over the country's nuclear ambitions -- the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. Foreign ministers of the six are to meet this week on the sidelines of the General Assembly.
Ahmadinejad said in July that talks would begin in early September, and he was asked repeatedly if Iran would join those talks. He sidestepped an answer and refused to give any kind of timetable.
"We have placed no restrictions on negotiations," he insisted. "If they tell us officially that there's a joint meeting, we'll make the preparations for it."
But at the same time, Ahmadinejad said Iran wants answers to a number of questions it has presented to the six powers.
They include whether the group wants "to create the circumstances for further friendship or for further confrontation," whether the six are fully committed to implementing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and "what the group's opinion is regarding the atomic bombs that the Zionist regime holds," he said, a reference to Israel, which refuses to confirm it possesses a nuclear arsenal.
"Their response does not prevent the resumption of negotiations, but it certainly will define the framework for those talks when they resume," Ahmadinejad said.