TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Saturday he does not view recent U.S. missile strikes on ally Syria as a message for Iran, which he called a “powerful country” that the U.S. cannot harm.
The controversial former president made the remarks to The Associated Press on Saturday in his office in northern Tehran, three days after he stunned Iranians by registering to run for president again.
His surprise candidacy must still be approved by authorities but has already upended a race that was widely expected to be won by incumbent moderate Hassan Rouhani.
Ahmadinejad dismissed suggestions that the U.S. strike on Syria might also be a warning for his country.
“I do not think it has a message for Iran. Iran is a powerful country and people like Mr. Trump or the United States administration cannot hurt Iran,” he said.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration earlier this year announced it was putting Iran “on notice” in part over its ballistic missile tests, and last week pounded a Syrian air base with cruise missiles in response to a chemical weapons attack.
Iran is the main regional backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad and is involved militarily on the ground in that country’s civil war.
Ahmadinejad struck a mostly conciliatory tone during the interview, taking care to not stir up controversy that could alienate voters or clerical authorities.
He avoided repeating inflammatory statements that made him infamous in the West, such as those predicting Israel’s demise or questioning the scale of the Holocaust. He dodged questions about issues such as Iran’s missile program and the possible reaction by the U.S. and Israel to another Ahmadinejad presidency.
Like all candidates, the 60-year-old must be vetted and approved by a powerful constitutional watchdog known as the Guardian Council before he can ultimately run. It will announce its list of approved candidates by April 27. The council, which is made up of clerics and Islamic jurists, normally disqualifies dissidents, women, and many reformists.
Ahmadinejad said the strike on Syria could have happened even if Hillary Clinton had won the U.S. election. He added that the decision to attack Syria was made by people behind the scenes in the U.S., strongly implying that the U.S. presidency is decided behind closed doors.
“Those who are the directors must give the role (of president) to a person who can pull it off best. A woman cannot put up a good war face,” he said. “A man can do that better. They need to come up with a figure and say he is very dangerous.”
Ahmadinejad also dismissed the Trump administration’s aggressive talk toward Tehran as political posturing, suggesting that a businessman with such varied international interests would rather avoid war.
“If he were dangerous, he would not have $70 billion of assets. However he has no choice but to play such a role,” he said.
It was unclear how he arrived at that dollar figure.
Ahmadinejad also voiced reluctant support for Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers, which saw Iran accept curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for relief from crippling international sanctions.
Iran has managed to sign a string of multibillion-dollar civilian aircraft deals since sanctions were lifted, but many ordinary Iranians are still waiting on hoped-for economic benefits of the nuclear agreement to trickle down.
“The nuclear deal is a legal document and a pact. In the Islamic Republic, the officials and the supreme leader have approved of it and declared their commitment to it,” he said.
“The problem about the nuclear deal is how they advertised it. Both parties have represented it in such a way as if it can solve all the issues of human history. It was incorrect. It later turned out to be untrue,” he continued.
Ahmadinejad’s candidacy has left many inside Iran scratching their heads.
He registered to run on the same day as did his former Vice President Hamid Baghaei, saying at the time his decision was meant to support his political ally. The move has fueled speculation that Ahmadinejad registered knowing that the Guardian Council would be reluctant to risk angering his conservative base by disqualifying both him and Baghaei.
His candidacy runs in opposition to a recommendation Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that he not run because it would create a “polarized situation” that would be “harmful for the county.”
Ahmadinejad had ruled out running in the wake of Khamenei’s comments in September, but after reversing course this week he called the supreme leader’s comments “just advice” that does not prevent him from running.