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ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES

Interview With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Venezuelan Leader Calls President Bush 'The Devil'

Aired September 20, 2006 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Fireworks at the U.N. today -- the president of Venezuela calling President Bush the devil. Seriously. He called him the devil -- not exactly the stuff of diplomacy.
And, after trading blows at the U.N., the presidents of the U.S. and Iran sat down with us.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: He spoke at the U.N., but he's no diplomat.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): I'm surprised why American politicians are so sensitive and biased with -- with regards to Israel.

ANNOUNCER: Iran's president on nuclear weapons, Israel, and his beef with President Bush.

From President Bush, diplomacy, but only for now.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Time is of the essence. I'm concerned that Iran is trying to stall and to try to buy time.

ANNOUNCER: And time, he tells us, is running out.

And another explanation from the pope -- more anger from the Muslim world. We will go behind both to what's really behind the pope's view of Islam.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER: Across the country and around the world, this is ANDERSON COOPER 360.

Reporting from the CNN studios in New York, here's Anderson Cooper.

COOPER: Thanks for joining us tonight.

We begin at the end of a surreal day at the United Nations. Now, most people think the U.N. is a place duller than watching paint dry. Not today, not when Venezuela's president got up to speak.

Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HUGO CHAVEZ, VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT (through translator): And the devil came here yesterday.

(APPLAUSE)

CHAVEZ: Yesterday, the devil came here, right here.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAVEZ: Right here.

And it smells of sulfur still today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: That was Hugo Chavez calling the U.N. worthless, calling President Bush Beelzebub.

It wasn't the only excitement this week. There was also the appearance of two men who could, very soon, utterly change the way you and I live. If the U.S. and Iran stay on their collision course over Iran's nuclear program, the experts say just about anything is possible.

We're talking about anything from $5-a-gallon gasoline, to terrorism across the Middle East, to a difficult and dangerous new war, a third front for the United States. Neither side says they want it. Each professes to have faith in diplomacy. But neither -- at least not publicly -- seems ready to budge, not yet.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): It seems to me that Mr. Bush fails to understand the reality of the world today, the conditions that beset the world today. This is not the kind of language you speak talking with a great nation. It is an insult to a great nation. I don't know why there's -- he is actually thinking when he makes remarks such -- like that.

I invite him to speak for half-an-hour with our nation every day. And everyone will listen to what he has to say. But nothing will be resolved.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: We will have more from our interview with Iran's president in just a moment. We're going to hear at length, as well, from President Bush.

First, CNN's Tom Foreman sets the stage.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The two presidents took to the podium hours apart, but debated their major disagreements anyway, starting with the hottest question: Is Iran developing nuclear weapons?

From Mr. Bush, a sharp accusation -- from Mr. Ahmadinejad, a flat no.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): All of our nuclear activities are transparent, peaceful, and under the watchful eyes of the IAEA inspectors.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Threats with nuclear power by some powers have taken the place of respect for other nations.

BUSH: We are working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis.

FOREMAN: What about Iraq? Again, a clash.

BUSH: Some have argued that the democratic changes we're seeing in the Middle East are destabilizing the region. This argument rests on a false assumption: that the Middle East was stable to begin with.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Not a day goes by without hundreds of people getting killed in cold blood. The occupiers are incapable of establishing security in Iraq. There is no indication that the occupiers have the necessary political will to eliminate the sources of instability.

FOREMAN: On Israel, Mr. Ahmadinejad accused the Jewish state, with America's help, of ceaselessly persecuting Palestinians.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Can there be a more vivid case of discrimination?

FOREMAN: Mr. Bush said:

BUSH: I'm committed to two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.

FOREMAN: The Iranian president repeatedly said America uses economic and military strength to prey upon weaker nations, making the U.N. a puppet.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): When the power behind the hostilities is itself a permanent member of the Security Council, how can it fulfill its mission?

FOREMAN: President Bush said the U.N. still offers hope for all nations to cooperate.

BUSH: Or will we yield the future to the terrorists and extremists? America has made its choice. FOREMAN (on camera): There is no way of telling who won this debate that never was. But all over Washington, people do know this: A little more than a year ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a little known figure.

(voice-over): And now he's debating the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet, or at least coming close.

Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, Iran's president says he wants to open a dialogue with America. But, over the past two years, he has said a number of things which have policy-makers concerned and Americans simply puzzled.

We sat down with the Iranian president about two hours ago.

We begin our conversation with his questioning whether the Holocaust ever happened.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: At the U.N., you spoke with great passion of -- of brotherhood, of peace and respect for all nations.

Yet, in Tehran last year, you spoke about wiping Israel off -- off the face of the -- the map, wiping Israel off the face of the map. That doesn't sound to many people in the United States, not just in the government -- to many people here, who heard that through the media, that doesn't sound like great respect for other nations.

Do you want to wipe Israel off the face of the map?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): I'm surprised why American politicians are so sensitive and biased with -- with regards to Israel. What is -- is there a relationship, to speak with such prejudice?

Everyone is prevented about questioning the regime. Whenever a question is raised, some American politicians react very strongly to it, whereas we know there's a lot being said about many countries around the world.

Lebanon was bombarded. In Ghana, people were killed with laser bombs. But it doesn't seem to have created concern among American politicians as much. But when somebody questions or criticizes the Zionist regime, there's so much reaction. Could you tell me why this is the case?

I would think it would be a good question to ask from American politicians, the extent of the prejudice we -- we see with them about Israel, given the massacres committed by Israel, killing people in their own homes. Should they not be subject to criticism? Should nobody complain and raise objections about the violations of rights and the murders that they commit? Are they free to do such acts?

Should they not act within the framework of any law?

COOPER: To -- to some in America, though, that is going to sound like you're not answering the question. I mean, the -- the question really is -- is, do you believe Israel has a right to exist?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): I say that it is an occupying regime.

We say we must -- you must allow the Palestinian nation to decide for itself what its fate should be. There are five million displaced Palestinians, four million who live under the threat of bombardments, or actual bombardments and attacks.

So, let Palestinian people decide for themselves. We support the vote of the people. And whatever the result is, we must all accept. Why should there be objection to this proposal, or -- or, so to say, with the vote of the people to indicate their will? Do -- don't the people in Palestine have the right to live? Are they not human beings? They live in their own homeland. In their own homeland, they are under attack.

COOPER: The same statement could be said of -- of Jewish people in Israel, that they're living in what they say is their homeland. Don't they have a right to exist?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Yes, in Palestine, there were a group of Jews that live. But where did they come afterwards, the larger groups that came to Palestine?

We know what the trend was. A group of people came from other places to that land. Where does the father of Mr. Olmert come from, for example? Some of the ministers in Israel are, in fact, of Iranian origin, with no background, historical background, in Palestine. But they're there, ruling.

COOPER: So, you're saying, really, they don't belong there; they should go somewhere else?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): I am saying, let the Palestinian people decide. The Palestinian people should decide what to do.

And among Palestinians, there are Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Our question is, what about the rights of the Palestinian people? They lived there, and they were displaced and forced to leave their own homeland, under the threat of a gun, and, regretfully, with the support of the American government.

What is happening to the Palestinians? Do they not have the right? Shouldn't we be thinking about that? Their young people are being killed on the streets. Homes are being destroyed over their heads, even in Gaza, even in the West Bank.

After all, they are human beings, too. They have the life -- the right to life and to live in their own homeland. Others have come from far and beyond, and are now there ruling there and governing that land.

Why did they go there? They should return to where they came from. Or, even if they don't, they should at least allow the Palestinian nation to decide about that and the future.

So, what I'm saying is quite clear. We want peace to be established there. We care for the Jews who live under pressure there as well, because they, too, are living outside their own homes, from where they belong, their homeland, actually. That is not their homeland.

COOPER: You have repeatedly implied that the Holocaust never happened. And it certainly seems to be the -- and implied that more research needs to be done on whether or not it did happen.

I mean, the argument could be made that the genocide was perhaps the most well-documented genocide of the 20th century. Do you really believe that the Holocaust never happened?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): If this event happened, where did it happen? The where is the main question. And it was not in Palestine. Why is the Holocaust used as a pretext to occupy the Palestinian lands?

COOPER: But do you understand why it's deeply offensive to people...

(CROSSTALK)

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): That subject, how is it connected to the occupying regime in Jerusalem?

COOPER: You do realize, though, why it would be deeply offensive to so many people that you use -- that you even say "if it ever happened"?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Well, you don't speak here for all Americans. In the past two or three days, I have met with many members of the media and the press here, some who are even related to the U.S. government. But the questions are the same across the board.

COOPER: Why -- why can't you believe there was a Holocaust and support Palestinians?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): No, that's not a reason at all.

The subject of the Holocaust is a different subject. I raised two or three questions that were very clear about it. I said that, in World War II, 60 million people lost their lives. They were killed. Two million of them were non-civilians, so to say, military. The rest were civilian populations.

And they all lost their lives. Their lives were all cared for and respected. But why is it that we concentrate so much on the lives of a -- a group of -- among the 60 million?

The second question is, assuming that this happened, why don't they allow more research and studies to be done about it? If it is a truth that happened, then we -- we will need more clarity about it. And they are -- must be impartial groups, or whoever who is interested should be able to do the research. Why is that prevented?

COOPER: President Bush, at the U.N. spoke -- tried to speak directly to the Iranian people yesterday. And he said...

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Did you get the answer you wanted about the Holocaust?

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: No, I didn't, but I know my time is limited.

I -- it is a fascinating subject. I mean, I think what people in America are...

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Are you asking the questions that are on your mind or questions that are given to you by others?

COOPER: Actually, in America, we have a free press, unlike in -- in -- in parts of Iran.

But I'm asking the questions that I'm interested in. But I -- I know your time is short. I would -- frankly, I would love to talk to you for two hours. But...

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Well, given that all the questions are very similar, it speaks for itself.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, we will have more from Iran's president shortly.

President Bush, on the other hand, did not talk about World War II or Israel when he sat down with CNN's Wolf Blitzer today. He did, however, talk about doing what he could to head off a war with Iran, everything, that is, short of negotiating with his adversaries.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Our position is very clear to the Iranians, that, if they want to sit down with American officials, that they first must verifiably suspend their enrichment program. They know our position. The world knows our position. And I clarified it at the United Nations over the past...

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": But, if it -- if -- if it would help -- if it would help to sit down, talk to them, and try to convince them -- you know, there have been other moments where great leaders have made that major decision to have a breakthrough -- Nixon going to China, Sadat going to Jerusalem.

What -- what would be wrong to just sit down with him and tell him, you know what, here are the options before you?

BUSH: Yes, well, he knows the options before him. I've made that very clear.

Secondly, Wolf, in order for there to be effective diplomacy, you can't keep changing your word.

At an important moment in this -- these negotiations with the E.U.-3 and -- and Iran, we made it clear we would come to the table, but we would come to the table only if they verifiably suspended their enrichment program.

And the reason that's important, that they verifiably suspend, is because we don't want them to have the technologies necessary to be able to build a nuclear weapon.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: We will have more from my exclusive interview with Iran's president in a moment.

I asked him a lot of things, including this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: President Bush said at the U.N. that the rulers of Iran -- quote -- "have chosen to deny you liberty," speaking to the Iranian people, "and to use your nation's resources to fund terrorism."

What did you think of that?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: How Iran's president answered -- when 360 continues, live from New York.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Iran's president had the last word yesterday at the United Nations -- his speech ending a long day on the opening of the General Assembly. Iran's president lobbed a laundry list of accusations at the United States, hours after President Bush addressed the General Assembly.

In a moment, we will have more of my exclusive interview with President Ahmadinejad -- but, first, some background on the man who now, more than ever, has the attention of the world.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER (voice-over): He defies the West, doubts the Holocaust, is determined to build a nuclear program, and wants Israel wiped off the face of the Earth. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad knows how to get attention.

And it's not just what he says that raises eyebrow. Standing just 5'4'', the son of a blacksmith never wears a tie, often appears scruffy, and is prone to wearing what has become his trademark sports jacket.

He may be amusing to some, but, of course, very dangerous to others, like Israel, President Bush, and the president's top advisers in the White House.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Iran is obviously part of the -- part of the problem. They sponsor Hezbollah. They encourage a radical brand of Islam. Imagine how difficult this issue would be if Iran had a nuclear weapon.

COOPER: President Bush fears, the 49-year-old civil-engineer- turned-savvy-politician is hoping to turn the Islamic Republic of Iran into a superpower, equipped with weapons of mass destruction.

Ahmadinejad insists, that's not true.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRANIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): We are no threat for anyone. The issue of making nuclear weapons has no place in Iran's policy. Making nuclear weapons is not on Iran's agenda.

COOPER: If the West fears him, millions elsewhere embrace his ideology. Ahmadinejad's followers are many. And so are his infamous friends, like American foes Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro.

It seems, the more he angers the U.S., the more popular he gets.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: He's becoming some sort of an international figure. The anti-American elements around the world, which, unfortunately, because of our policies, are becoming more numerous, are beginning to recognize him as one of the top leaders.

COOPER: And there is no doubt that he is a top leader for anti- Americans. But it's unclear if his standoff with the U.S. will end peacefully or not.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Increasingly, at home, he is coming under criticism, in Iran, for lack of movement on the Iranian economy. He was elected, running on an anti-corruption platform, and promises to move the economy along. It is not.

There has been some grumbling that he is paying too much attention to events outside Iran, and not enough to what's going on inside with the Iranian people.

More of my -- my interview with the Iranian president right now -- right now, though -- we talked about his speech yesterday at the U.N. And, in that speech, he took aim at the United States and the U.N. Security Council.

Hours earlier, at the U.N., President Bush had appealed directly to the Iranian people.

Here's what President Bush had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: The greatest obstacle to this future is that your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation's resources to fund terrorism and fuel extremism and pursue nuclear weapons.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: I asked President Ahmadinejad about President Bush's statements.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): It seems to me that Mr. Bush fails to understand the reality of the world today, the conditions that beset the world today. This is not the kind of language you speak talking with a great nation.

It's an insult to a great nation. I don't know what is -- he is actually thinking, when he makes remarks like -- like that. I invite him to speak for half-an-hour with our nation every day. And everyone will listen to what he has to say, but nothing will be resolved.

COOPER: He gave his message to the Iranian people. What -- what is your message to the American people? What do you want them to know about Iran, about you?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Our message is a message of peace and brotherhood with all nations, with all people. And we like all nations and people. We are against oppression and injustice. And we -- we love the American people, as we love our own. We respect everyone.

And to clarify issues, I called Mr. Bush to debate. I propose that we sit and have a debate to talk about our positions, to discuss issues, and allow everyone around the world to hear the debate. This will -- it was a great suggestion, I think, because I believe that, after all, it is the public opinion, the world public opinion, that must have information and decide.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well, a military confrontation with Iran would present the U.S. with a formidable opponent. Here's the "Raw Data."

Iran has an estimated 1,500 battle tanks. It also has an army force of at least 345,000 soldiers. Another 350,000 are reservists. And Iran is believed to have several long-range missiles, including the Shahab-6, which can reach 6,000 miles, which just happens to be the distance from Iran to New York. My exclusive interview with Iran's president continues in a moment.

Yesterday, he told the U.N. that Iran is pursuing a peaceful nuclear program, a program that he says is transparent, that -- statements that -- they don't quite match up to reports by the U.N.'s own nuclear watchdog. I asked him about the lack of clarity on that. We will talk about that -- coming up.

Plus, today: the pope trying again to stem the backlash over his comments about Islam. Why he might have made the situation worse -- when 360 continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: He is the leader of Iran, and he has the attention of the world.

My exclusive interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues -- next on 360.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHAVEZ (through translator): And the devil came here yesterday.

(APPLAUSE)

CHAVEZ: Yesterday, the devil came here, right here.

(LAUGHTER)

CHAVEZ: Right here.

And it smells of sulfur still today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: That is the president of a country, Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, speaking today at the United Nations. Fair to say it was probably one of the most outrageous speeches perhaps ever made before the General Assembly.

Just a quick note: I think, before the break, I -- we talked about an Iranian long-range missile, the Shahab-6. I think I said it had a -- a range of 6,000 miles.

It's actually 6,000 kilometers, which would, of course, put it within range of Israel, but not of New York. That was a mistake there. And I apologize for that.

President Chavez is an ally of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In my exclusive interview with him tonight, I asked him about what he thought about Chavez's speech.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Your -- your ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez today, speaking at the General Assembly, called President Bush a devil, and said that he smelled sulfur.

I'm wondering what you think of -- of his comments, and whether you smelled any sulfur when you were speaking at the General Assembly.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Do you want to interview me or Mr. Chavez, perhaps?

COOPER: You have no thoughts on his comments?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): I think that the United Nations offers a podium for everyone. And everybody can speak of what they think. So let's keep it open.

COOPER: You said at the U.N. yesterday that your nuclear program is, quote, "transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eyes of IAEA inspectors." That's not what IAEA inspectors have said. In a recent report they have said that they, frankly, cannot verify the peaceful nature of your program and that it is not transparent.

Why not just open up the program and fulfill all the requirements that the IAEA would like?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): They said that they did not find any evidence or sign, although they must continue inspections. And they're welcome to continue inspections at all times.

COOPER: The report that...

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): The IAEA has declared that on numerous occasions, in fact. And we know that that is not the first time they've stated that.

COOPER: The report that I read in August said Iran has not address the long outstanding verification issues or provided the necessary transparency to remove uncertainties associate with some of its activities. Mohamed ElBaradei was quoted as saying that he can't give you a clean bill of health yet.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Perhaps the report that you had and saw is incomplete. The IAEA has indicated that it has found no evidence that would show that Iran is developing a nuclear energy for other purposes that are other than peaceful.

So I like to ask -- I want to take the opportunity -- are you positive that the United States of America, in fact, has not diverted from its own nuclear programs to develop perhaps nuclear devices that are not for peaceful purposes? The United States, are you telling me, is not building a nuclear bomb? Are you not concerned about that?

We have -- there has been no evidence saying that we are doing any such activities. Then why should there be a furor of concern among people, among groups? But please, go on.

COOPER: But well, you say that, without a doubt, your program is for peaceful purposes. I mean, if that is true, why not -- with the IAEA report I read said that they've not had all the interviews they would like to have. They've not had all the documentation they would like to have.

Are you willing to provide them everything that they say they would like? Or do you feel it's inappropriate that they are pushing too much?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): We're working within the framework of international laws. They might, for example, choose to interview me personally. But that would be stepping beyond the framework of international law.

So, they have to tell us exactly what provisions of the NPT they're speaking of which they believe we have not abided by. There's no such case. They are interested in getting more information. And we're ready to cooperate with them and provide them with all information within the framework of international law.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: We had about 20 minutes in all with the Iranian president. Obviously, we would have loved to have more time. There were a lot more things to talk about, a lot more questions to follow up on. But you deal with the time you got.

So who boosted their image the most on the world stage this week? President Bush or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? We'll be joined by CNN's Wolf Blitzer and John Roberts with analysis on the two men's verbal sparring, ahead.

And an eye-opening report about al Qaeda in Iraq. Isn't just in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It's becoming a major player in the insurgency in Iraq. We'll talk to an insurgent commander, of all things, when 360 continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Well, appears there's no end in sight of the war of words between President Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both used their speeches before the U.N. this week to attack each other's policies and, as you've just seen, they continued to do so in interviews with the media.

CNN's Wolf Blitzer and CNN senior international correspondent John Roberts joining me now from Washington.

It's been a long day for you, Wolf, interviewing the president and doing your programs, as well. You know, it's fascinating when you hear the president and compare that to Iranian President Ahmadinejad.

Some of the statements that Ahmadinejad made surely raised so many eyebrows in the U.S., around the world, about the Holocaust, wiping Israel off the map. How do you think he played here?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, you notice that his remarks at the United Nations' General Assembly he didn't get in to the Holocaust. Didn't get into destroying Israel. A lot of boilerplate on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He was trying to present, presumably, a more moderate, more responsible image.

I don't think he plays very well in, certainly, the United States. I'm not sure he plays well in much of the rest of the world. He does have a constituency. There's great fear of him in the Arab world, because he is a Shiite, of course. And most of the Arab world are led by Arab Sunnis. So there's no great love for him in Egypt or Jordan or Saudi Arabia. So much of the Arab world. That's a real problem there.

I'm not sure he or President Bush, for that matter, changed many minds over the course of the past 48 hours or so. They both delivered remarks that were pretty standard, pretty well-known. And I don't think that either one of them necessarily had much of an impact.

COOPER: John, both men, both presidents, trying to speak directly to each other's countries' populations. President Bush speaking directly to the Iranian people. Do you think that played?

JOHN ROBERTS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think they probably played to a draw. I think that President Bush gave a much more conciliatory speech this time around than he has in previous years talking about the spread of freedom, talking directly to people in countries like Syria and Sudan and in Iran though, you know, Iranians really do like America.

And they feel like they have a lot in common with America. They are very nationalistic about this idea of the nuclear program. So when the president gets into that area, perhaps he loses a few people.

And Ahmadinejad, you know, for all of the outrage that he causes among many people in the west, you know, he sounds very pragmatic to people on the streets of Arab countries. Maybe he does not curry a lot of favor with the leaders of countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia as much as he would in Iran, but on the Arab street, people like him because he's standing up to the United States.

And when he gets into this axis partnership with Hugo Chavez, who said now turning many countries in South America against this White House, the two of them form quite a dynamic duo. And I think, Anderson, they could create a lot of problems for this president in these remaining two years.

COOPER: Yes, they held hands recently. Sort of Wonder Twin powers activating.

Wolf, Chavez today, calling the president a devil, said he smelled sulfur. Have you ever heard anything like that in the U.N. before?

BLITZER: No, I mean, I'm sure that there have been comments similar. I don't remember off the top of my head. He was very, very lively, shall we say. And no doubt, he spoke from his heart. That's -- that's what he believes.

And I think, John is right when he suggests that on the streets in a lot of parts of the world, where they don't like Bush, where they don't like the United States, he plays very, very well. They think that this guy is standing up to the United States.

I'm not necessarily convinced he's helping himself in the long run, because he's coming across to a lot of people as, you know, being outrageous, if you will. And maybe that's good theater. Not so sure it's good statesman-like work and not necessarily all the best for Venezuela as a country.

COOPER: John, President Bush making a lot more public appearances, giving interviews, giving speeches. Poll numbers seem to be rising. I think 44 percent approval in the last poll. That's up from a low, I think in the low 30s. How's he doing? Is this working?

ROBERTS: Well, it all depends on who you look at. The latest "USA Today"/Gallup poll showed him at 44 percent, but there's a new CBS News/"New York Times" poll out that shows him still at 37. I mean, a lot of it could depend on your weighting in the polls. But he's doing well or he's doing not so well.

But there seems to be an indication of at least a bit of a bump from this new focus on terror and trying to tie Iraq with terror. It's all really going to come out in the wash, though, in the polls in November. That latest "USA Today"/Gallup poll, by the way, showed that among likely voters, Republicans and Democrats have now evened up the Democrats had a substantial advantage until just a few weeks ago.

So it appears as though the race might be tightening a little bit. Republicans feeling a little bit better about it. They have a huge amount of cash on hand and much more than the Democrats do. And they plan to just flood the airwaves with advertisements. They've got a big "get out the vote" campaign as well, Anderson. So they could do some damage against the Democrats this coming November.

COOPER: John, Wolf, thanks. Appreciate it.

Ahead, we'll have more about President Hugo Chavez's tough words to the U.N. We've just been talking about it, calling President Bush the devil.

Also, the pope speaking today about those remarks he made last week about Islam. Was it enough to squash the anger in the Muslim world, or did he make it worse? We'll talk to author and blogger Andrew Sullivan.

More 360 ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Controversy continues in the Muslim world over those comments about Islam that Pope Benedict XVI made last week. The pope addressed the issue today during his weekly audience at the Vatican, saying once again that his comments were misunderstood. Is that enough?

CNN's faith and values correspondent Delia Gallagher takes a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's the second time Pope Benedict explained his quote of medieval emperor who described Islam as violent and inhuman. But it wasn't the apology some Muslim leaders were hoping for.

POPE BENEDICT XVI, LEADER OF CATHOLIC CHURCH (through translator): I did not in any way wish to make my own negative words which were pronounced by the medieval emperor in this dialogue. And its contained polemic did not express my personal convictions.

GALLAGHER: Anger among Muslims around the world remains intense. Cartoons compare the pope to Hitler and Satan. An animation that aired repeatedly on Al Jazeera shows Benedict shooting a dove that had been released by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

The Vatican has been attempting serious damage control, printing the pope's regrets in Arabic on the front page of the Vatican newspaper. And instructing its representatives to explain the pope's words to Muslim leaders.

But the pope has made it clear that his dialogue with Islamic leaders covers tough issues like demands for religious freedom for Christians in the Muslim world.

JOHN ALLEN, CNN VATICAN ANALYST: The Saudi government in the '90s spent $20 million to fund the construction of the largest mosque in Europe, which is in Rome in the shadow of the Vatican, with the full support of John Paul II. Meanwhile, Christians can't build churches in Saudi Arabia or worship publicly.

GALLAGHER: The long-term effects of the pope's controversial comments will most likely be seen in how and whether Muslim leaders respond to the pope's challenge for religious freedom and dialogue with the Islamic world.

Delia Gallagher, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: So where does this all -- this all leave the Vatican? Coming up, we'll talk to Andrew Sullivan about the pope's new speech today and what it means for the future of Muslim and Catholic relations.

And al Qaeda in Iraq. CNN's Michael Ware taking us inside the ranks. See how they are gaining more strength.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: So did the pope miss an opportunity to extend an olive branch to Muslims today by not issuing a direct apology? Just what is it going to take to end or at least diffuse this controversy?

I'm joined now by Andrew Sullivan, contributor for "TIME" magazine, also writer on AndrewSullivan.com.

Andrew, you wrote on the blog that the post message was anti- inflammatory but courageous. How so?

ANDREW SULLIVAN, CONTRIBUTOR, "TIME": Well, he's telling what he thinks is the truth. Which is that Islam and Christianity are based in very different ideas of God. And, as he understands it, and that's what, regardless of this inflammatory quote, what he was really saying, is that Christianity is based in the Greek notion of logos, of reason, and Islam is not.

And therefore, it's very hard to have a dialogue. And therefore, the only way you can have a dialogue is between cultures, not faiths. That's quite a radical thing for him to say. It's certainly not in any way diplomatic.

COOPER: Well, does the reaction to his comments, and it wasn't actually to those comments. It was to that quote he used. Does the reaction, though, in the Muslim world sort of prove what he was saying?

SULLIVAN: It certainly doesn't disprove it. If he's saying that the Muslim world has a problem with violence and compulsion and religion, and they respond by threatening violence against him, then it doesn't exactly disprove his point.

The problem is that the pope is really intellectual. He's always a theologian. If you read his writings across the decades, he's always been a very provocative, interesting...

COOPER: So he's not a diplomat?

SULLIVAN: He's not a diplomat. He's never been. He's annoyed people and infuriated people within the church for a very long time.

And I don't think he realizes yet that he's the pope. And, and what you can say in the seminar as a theologian, the truth that you can tell, may not be quite diplomatic enough when you are actually the official leader of the world's Catholics.

COOPER: So he's now basically done sort of two kind of apologies. I mean, sort of the first one was sort of "I apologize for the way you reacted to what I said," and the second one was sort of "I'm sorry that, you know, that you misunderstood what I said."

SULLIVAN: Yes. It's been very painful to watch. But the truth is, he will not concede the fundamental point he's making, which I think is to his credit.

I mean, I think that John Paul was a very embracing and pastoral guy. Benedict is very much a strict orthodox intellectual and that does not make for goody diplomacy.

And but at the same time, he's telling important truths that there is a problem with compulsion in Islam. If a Muslim decides to become a Christian, they can face the death penalty in many parts of the Muslim world. That is a problem.

And it is courageous of the pope to say so. It's also courageous of him to say if Islam is fomenting -- even if it's an extreme version of it, even if it's perversion of Islam -- if it's fomenting violence and Islam has to come to terms with that, it isn't up to the west to apologize for that. It's up to Islam to deal with it. Courageous.

COOPER: He does sort of imply, though, that Islam is the only religion that sort of compulsion is OK and that sort of can spawn violence and sort of glosses over a long history in the Catholic Church.

SULLIVAN: Oh, yes.

COOPER: You know, there was an awful lot of stuff that went on, the inquisition, lots of things, which he never sort of mentioned.

SULLIVAN: Yes. And he's very good at that, of course. I mean, he's bypassed the church's own murderous history. I mean, what Christianity, what the crusades did to Muslims, and indeed, what Christianity to one another in the Middle Ages and indeed during the Reformation is just as violent, if not much more violent, than what we're seeing today in the Muslim world.

What the pope was saying was that we have reformed. You know? We have mellowed out.

COOPER: In that way he's calling for a reformation in the Islamic world?

SULLIVAN: Yes. But of course, it's not his place to tell another faith to reform.

What he was really saying, in fact, Anderson, is I think, they can't reform because they do not have a reasonable discourse within Islam which allows reform to take place. That I think is what he was saying. And that, of course, is a very radical and inflammatory thing to say.

COOPER: Andrew, you have a book, "Conservative Soul: How We Lost it, How to Get it Back". When's it come out?

SULLIVAN: October 10.

COOPER: All right. We'll have you on the program then.

SULLIVAN: Thank you very much.

COOPER: Appreciate it.

SULLIVAN: You bet. COOPER: Coming up, we'll have more of my interview with Iran's president, his thoughts on diplomacy, nuclear weapons and President Bush.

Also, they already speak the language of fear. Now Al Qaeda in Iraq's new message. This time, they are speaking in English directly to you. What are they saying now and can they be stopped? We'll have that from Michael Ware.

And later, Colorado prosecutors got slammed for jumping when John Karr lied. Remember this? God, doesn't it seem like a long time ago? And now California prosecutors bungling -- are they bungling their case against him? That and more when 360 continues from New York.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COOPER: Al Qaeda's new message, America's growing problem. 360 next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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