Story Highlights• Senior official offers interpretation of religious leaders' view of United States
• Says cooperation, not conflict, is desire of key leaders, including Khamenei
• Wish for nuclear program is to show strength and independence, he says
• Not all in government agree with the view, unnamed official adds
By Christiane Amanpour
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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour recently traveled in Iran, and here she recaps a conversation with a top government official.
TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- As I sat down recently with a senior Iranian government official, he urgently waved a column by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times in my face, one about how the United States and Iran need to engage each other.
''Natural allies,'' this official said.
It was a surprising choice of words considering the barbs Washington and Tehran have been trading of late.
"We are not after conflict. We are not after crisis. We are not after war," said this official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But we don't know whether the same is true in the U.S. or not. If the same is true on the U.S. side, the first step must be to end this vicious cycle that can lead to dangerous action -- war."
He confided that what he was telling me was not shared by all in the Iranian government, but it was endorsed so high up in the religious leadership that he felt confident spelling out the rationale.
"This view is not off the streets. It's not the reformist view and it's not even the view of the whole government," he replied.
But he insisted he was describing the thinking at the highest levels of the religious leadership -- the center of decision-making power in Iran.
I asked whether he meant Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself.
"Yes," he said.
The rhetoric between the United States and Iran has intensified of late, with Washington most recently blaming Tehran for funneling weapons into Iraq. Tehran vehemently denies this. Washington has also accused Iran of building up its nuclear program, with the ultimate goal of making a nuclear bomb -- something Tehran has long denied. Iran insists its nuclear program is for civilian nuclear power.
Indeed, this senior government official told me the first step between Iran and the United States must be for each side to accept that the other is secure, and to say so.
"We do not want to have to prove that we are strong. Our nuclear program is not to show the U.S. we are strong. It is because of our previous centuries of threats and invasions," he said.
Aha, I intervened, "so you do want the bomb?"
The official replied: "No, our nuclear program is not about the bomb it's about power. We want to say -- that without the UK, U.S., France, Russia, Germany -- we have done this ourselves [set up a peaceful nuclear program].That is our strength."
He said the need to show power was "just common sense after 300 recent years looking over our shoulder," running through the list of those who have sent armies into Iran -- from Alexander the Great to the Mongols to the Ottomans to Russia to Saddam Hussein.
Then he paused. "The one country that never invaded us was America."
He said the time is right for the United States and Iran to sit down and talk directly -- to say "we recognize each other." He said neither side has done this so far "because of the mentality on each side."
"Each of us is afraid of looking weak if we take the first step," he said. "We have this fear in common with America. Before contemplating recognition, each side feels it necessary to convince the other side that 'I am not weak.'"
When the official waved the column by Friedman in my face at the start of the conversation, his point was this:
That despite disagreement over Iran's nuclear program, despite accusations that Iran is supporting anti-American killers in Iraq, despite even the 1979 hostage crisis, Iran and America are "natural allies" and the time has come to restore relations.
"We are natural allies. Why?" he said. "Because now the major threat for both Iran and the U.S.A. is al Qaeda."
He said al Qaeda had attacked the "symbol of our faith" when it struck the Golden Dome mosque -- the Al-Askariya Mosque -- in the Iraqi city of Samarra last February, setting off much of the sectarian violence that has plagued the war-torn nation over the last year. Similarly, he said, al Qaeda struck the "symbols of American power" on 9/11.
"Why is the U.S. forcing us to enter a struggle with them that is only in al Qaeda's interest?" he said.
I pressed him about Iran's sudden interest in extending an olive branch. "Why now? What's motivating you?" I asked.
"Peace for the Iranian people," he said. "But not only peace, peace with security. Peace based on mutual respect, mutual benefit and mutual security."
Mindful of the heated rhetoric flying between Tehran and Washington -- between both presidents no less -- this official said: "If we give the impression that we welcome a battle, this is not because it is our first option. It's our final option."
The official then spoke of some other issues of concern to the United States, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the war it provoked with Israel last summer when it captured and killed Israeli soldiers.
"Hassan Nasrallah miscalculated Israel's response to the kidnappings," he said of the Hezbollah leader. When I pressed him, he admitted Hezbollah also miscalculated Israel's need to project deterrence and identity.
I asked him why Iran helped Hezbollah in the war. "We helped Hezbollah in order that they not be wiped out," he said. "We helped the enemy of our enemy [Israel]."
I told him many Israelis believe the war's end was inconclusive and fear they face another challenge from Hezbollah this summer. The official replied: "We do not believe Hezbollah will do that again."
And then he turned back to his main point, about America. "Americans must not make the same miscalculation about us."
Like almost every Iranian I met, he fulminated against the infamous "Axis of Evil" reference made by President Bush during the 2002 State of the Union address. Iranians -- from the everyday man and woman on the street to the highest government official -- simply scratch their heads at that, especially since Iran had just worked in partnership with the United States bringing down the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and bringing that country a new democratic government.
And on that note, another senior Iranian official working closely on the Afghanistan issue told me that, after a recent trip there, he was alarmed to conclude that as much as 50 percent of Afghanistan is now once again under control of a resurgent Taliban, al Qaeda and forces of another radical Islamic leader Gulbeddin Hekmatyar. This Iranian official told me the United States must again engage to prevent disaster from overshadowing the success that was made in Afghanistan after 9/11. He said Iran is ready to do its part.
Formula for the future
My 90-minute conversation with the senior Iranian government official ended with him describing a way forward between the United States and Iran.
"Everything with Iranian engagement. Everything with U.S. engagement," he said.
In other words, instead of the United States saying, ''Iran out of the Persian Gulf, Iran out of Lebanon, Iran out of Iraq,'' the United States should welcome Iran's presence and work with Iran to help keep the region stable, he said.
The question now is which country will take the first step and show they're not being weak by putting diplomacy back on track.
History awaits the answer.