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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Aired October 23, 2011 - 10:00   ET


FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: Welcome to a special edition of GPS, THE GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. I'm Fareed Zakaria, coming to you today from Tehran, the capital of Iran, a place few journalists are given access to. This hour, one on one with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his turf.

We're in Iran at a crucial point. The Islamic Republic currently faces serious charges from the United States that it has plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. I will press President Ahmadinejad on this issue.

We are also here, of course, just days after the death of another enemy of the United States, Moammar Gadhafi, and I'll ask the Iranian president for his thoughts on the leader's demise.

But we are also witnessing serious internal tensions inside Iran as the president appears locked in a power struggle with other powerful forces in the regime, perhaps the most powerful of all, the Supreme Leader.

Meanwhile, economic sanctions against Iran appear to be having an effect, and the country is dismantling many of its subsidies. And, while the winds of change are blowing through the Arab world today, they have bypassed Iran, as the regime has been able to crush the opposition Green Movement. This makes Iran less attractive as a model for millions of young Middle Easterners as they seek greater representation and voice.

America's relations with Iran remain deeply troubled. The two countries haven't had diplomatic relations since 1979 and the Islamic Revolution. From America's point of view, in those last 32 years Iran has done everything it could to upset the West. Its president, Mr. Ahmadinejad, has talked about wiping Israel off the map. It is pursuing nuclear technology and nuclear weapons technology.

Iran has thwarted American plans in Iraq by funding militias and politicians there. It supports Hezbollah. It has stood by Syria even as the Assad regime brutally cracked down on protesters.

From Iran's point of view - well, you're going to hear Iran's point of view from its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Let's get started.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ZAKARIA: Welcome to our viewers, and welcome President Ahmadinejad. Thank you for joining us.

Let me begin with something that's fresh in the news. President Obama has said that all American troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year. In light of this announcement, will your government increase its efforts to train the Iraqi army, since there will be a need in Iraq for training and support. Will the Iranian government be providing greater support in that area?

PRES. MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, IRAN (through translator): I think this is going to be a very good idea and it should have been done sooner, maybe seven or eight years ago, and they would avoid killing so many Iraqi people or Americans as well. I think they should have done it much earlier.

But the people in the Iraqi government did not accept the increased presence of the Americans. The Iraqi government is independent and sovereign. They should decide how to provide trainings for the military personnel. We should wait for the decision of the Iraqi government.

ZAKARIA: But do you expect that Iran's engagement and involvement with the Iranian government will now increase as a result of the American withdrawal?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): I don't think there is going to be any change. We have a special relationship with Iraq. There's a historical relationship between the two governments. We have a very friendly and amicable relationship with the Iraqi people.

Although there was a war between the two nations under Saddam Hussein, but that was not able to disturb this relationship.

ZAKARIA: Moammar Gadhafi is dead. What is your reaction to the news of his death?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): The - it was no different. I think it's the - the will of the people that should work and prevail everywhere. Justice, freedom and respect to people, this is the right of all nations. Of course, we feel very sorry that people are being killed. I wish everybody would respect justice and freedom, and there would be no need for any conflict or clash.

In the beginning, we recommended a dialogue between the two sides and all parties, but they did not pay attention to our recommendations. And, of course, NATO intervention was effective in exacerbating the conflict.

ZAKARIA: You say that the will of the people should prevail everywhere, but in Syria, the government of Syria is engaging in a very brutal crackdown, even a massacre. Turkey, which has been very friendly to Syria and to the Assad regime, has broken with the regime and now has publicly called for President Assad to step down.

Will you add your voice and call on the Assad regime to step down and listen to the will of the people?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): We have a friendly relationship with both Turkey and Syria. Our policy is independent. We think that we should respect the independence and sovereignty of all nations of everywhere in the world - in the United States, in Europe. I think all parties must sit and reach an understanding and there should be no intervention from outside or interfering, neither from NATO or us.

ZAKARIA: But, Mr. President, you - you make it sound like the two sides are equal. In fact, what is happening in Syria is not that there are protesters are killing the security forces, the vast majority of deaths are the security forces killing innocent men, women and children. Surely, this is something you should condemn clearly and not say both sides are to blame. If justice and freedom are - are the goal, it is important that President Assad hear your message.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Yes. Justice dictates that nobody should kill the other. Nobody, nobody, nobody has the right to kill others.

You know, the governments ignore the opponents. We are going to make greater efforts to encourage both the government of Syria and the other side, all parties to reach an understanding. But I think and we believe that there should be no interference from outside.

The positions of the United States are not going to help. They have never helped. They could do things better in Libya, for example. From the beginning, we said there should be an international team to mediate in order to encourage all parties to reach an understanding. But NATO had ambitions in Libya. They wanted the oil resources in Libya. There was no need to kill so many people.

This is the situation in Syria, too.


ZAKARIA: There's a lot more of my interview with President Ahmadinejad still to come.

Up next, the United States says Iran plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington. What does Iran say? You'll find out.


ZAKARIA: And we are back with more of my interview with President Ahmadinejad. I'm going to ask him about Washington's allegations about the plot to kill the Saudi ambassador.

One point, Washington alleges that Iran's Revolutionary Guards' Qods Force, its foreign expeditionary force, was involved, and the head of that force is General Suleimani.


ZAKARIA: Let me ask you, President Ahmadinejad, about the controversy regarding the assassination plot. Have you talked to General Suleimani, the heads of the Qods Force, and can you tell us that he personally assured you that there was no involvement?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): I think we must look into the root of the problem or the issue. The claims of the United States against our country has been continuing for more than 33 years, and they create a different problem. They created a nuclear issue, and today they create and say such things.

We need really to kill the ambassador of our brotherly country? What is the reason and the interest behind that? We are a civilized nation. We have a strong logic, and, with this strong logic, we talk to all nations.

We never had any intention to hurt Saudi Arabia. Do we really want to do it in the United States? And is that a way, really?

ZAKARIA: If I may, Mr. President, have you spoken to General Suleimani, and has he assured you?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): I don't need to talk about it.

ZAKARIA: So you haven't talked to him?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): There is no need to do it because we have heard many similar things from the United States. The whole world says Iranian people are wise, and we should see the motives in the United States.

ZAKARIA: But President Ahmadinejad, you have seen - you're - you're a man who reads a lot. You have seen - you have seen the WikiLeaks cables, cable from the U.S. ambassador in Saudi Arabia, quoting the king of Saudi Arabia, urging the United States to attack Iran and to, quote-unquote, "chop off the head of the snake."

This is not something the U.S. is asking, this is something the Saudi government is saying because of their concerns about Iranian influence and its nuclear program.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Look, I think the information that is being published is a planned work. We are not going to make policies based on this information. We should receive information from reliable sources.

We have no problem with the governments of the region and we know that these problems are being provoked by outside forces. We do not recognize the Zionist regime because this regime is basically illegitimate.

We have no problems of the people of the United States. We love them. We have problems with the government of the United States.

What are the American bases doing in our region? During the current year, they made military contract amounting to $90 billion with the countries of the region. And United States is doing a very ugly thing. They are spending so much money for these military bases. They can spend this money for the American unemployed.

Have more than $1,000 billions of dollars for military budget. If they spend this money for the American economy, is it necessary for the people to go to Wall Street?

ZAKARIA: Before the Arab spring, Iran was widely loved in the Arab world. This is - the poll showed that. In the last poll, Iran's standing have dropped to 14 percent because I think you are seen as supporting Syria as it brutalized its people. You have the oldest - the longest serving leader in the Middle East now, except for Oman. The Supreme Leader has been there for decades.

Iran's standing in the Middle East has dropped.


ZAKARIA: By the objective polls. This is not my opinion.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): I think if you want to put an end then to all dialogue, we should have an experiment - an objective and practical experiment. President Obama or any European leaders, whoever. Those who claim to be the best, they can come with me. We should go together to any country they wish without any security guards, and we join hands and we go to the streets and then we will wait for people. How they react.

There is no need for any polling. There is no need for any media campaign. And we just wait for the people to show, to see their views and their reactions from Japan to Uruguay, from the United States to Indonesia, from Scandinavia to South Africa.

I am ready to do it. President Obama, the German Chancellor, the French president, British prime minister - any of them. Especially in Arab countries. Let's go together.

And they can also set the time and determine the place. We go together and we will see how the people react.


ZAKARIA: We'll be back later in the show with more of my interview with Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I'll ask him if Iran's new nuclear proposal could be the basis for a deal.

But first, "What in the World?" is up next. Who do you think wrote the best selling book in Tehran, Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader? Think again. You'll be surprised.


ZAKARIA: Welcome back to a special edition of THE GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. I'm Fareed Zakaria in Tehran.

It's time for our "What in the World?" segment. Guess which author has the top selling book around here? Everyone seems to want a copy. Now, the Supreme Leader has a new book out with the catchy title, "Movement of Science Production," but I gathered sales for that are only lukewarm. The top selling author isn't Mr. Ahmadinejad either. In fact, it's not any Iranian at all. Instead, it's a Colombian, Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

He hasn't published a book in years, but back in 1996 he wrote this book. It's called "News of a Kidnapping." You wouldn't find it in bookstore shelves here in Iran. Most places are all sold out. Rumors have floated for weeks that the book has been banned, but any ban that might have been in place was lifted earlier this week. We had a hard time finding this copy for ourselves.

What in the world is going on?

Mir-Hosein Mousavi is an opposition leader here. He ran against President Ahmadinejad in 2009 and led the protests after the election. He gained international fame as the leader of the Green Movement, but he has been under house arrest since February.

In a recent meeting with his daughters, he compared his detention to Marquez's account of abductions by a drug cartel in Columbia. Mousavi's word spread and, just like that, "News of a Kidnapping" went viral.

But what does this say about Iran and the aspirations of the Iranian people? Their plight is best evidenced by a U.N. report out this week on human rights in Iran. It shows how Tehran has mastered the art of suppressing dissent. Hundreds of activists, journalists and students have been imprisoned for taking part in street demonstrations since the 2009 Green Movement. More than 200 executions have been officially announced this year. Barring China, no other country metes out the death penalty more often.

So, why aren't we seeing any push back? After all, it's the year of the Arab spring. Where are Iran's protesters?

One answer could be that Tehran has really learned its lesson from 2009. Now it crushes the first sign of dissent. It's also learned from watching the Arab spring. It wouldn't let hundreds of people gather in public places.

But Syria and Libya tried that, too. What is different here is that Iranians are not Arabs. Many don't like the phrase Arab revolution. You see, the word revolution here in Tehran brings back memories of 1979, the year the Shah was overthrown. It was a time when Iranians felt they could recreate their country. It was an Iranian spring. It was their revolution, and it went sour.

Thirty-two years on, Iran is a great civilization, but with a political system that seems to fail the aspirations of many of its people. As a country, it is viewed with suspicion around the world and increasingly in the region. It is subject to the most stringent international sanctions. Internally, clearly there is suppression and discontent. And even if Iranians were to revolt once more, what is it they would want? What is the alternative to the current movement? Will people support that alternative? Is it likely to be better? Those are the questions that Iranians grapple with, and there isn't a simple answer.

The one lesson I have learned from watching countries like Iran that are distant, complex, often closed to outsiders, is to be careful in drawing grand conclusions about the regime, its stability and its prospects. Clearly, some Iranians support this regime for reasons of religious loyalty and belief, and because they get tangible material rewards from it. Others fear it. And still others are waiting for the opportunity to reform or even replace it.

The people who can read Gabriel Garcia Marquez obviously do not make for a majority, but they are surely a sign of a country where people are gasping for freedom.

Back in a moment from Tehran, with more of my interview with Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Except from the very beginning, we are against Zionists. They have no religion. Religion is wealth and money.



CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Now a wrap-up of the morning's top stories.

A 6.6 magnitude earthquake hit Southeastern Turkey near the border with Iraq and Iran. The mayor in a Town of Van says there are no casualties there, but there are reports of up to a thousand deaths in smaller rural communities.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded this morning on CNN's "STATE OF THE UNION" to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's interview with Fareed Zakaria. She addressed the Iranian president's statement that Iran intended to train Iraqi military and police.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Iran would be badly miscalculating if they did not look at the entire region and all of our presence in many countries in the region, both in bases, in training, with NATO allies like Turkey, so I'm used to the president of Iran saying all kinds of things, but I think it's important to set the record straight.


CROWLEY: Those are your top stories. Now, back to FAREED ZAKARIA GPS.

ZAKARIA: And we are back with more of my interview with Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We talk about two of the most vexing issues that stand between Iran and the West - Iran's nuclear program and its human rights record.


ZAKARIA (on camera): Let me ask you about a weapons program that is alleged to be being pursued by Iran, not the United States, that is the Nuclear Weapons Program. A senior official at the IAEA, the head of the safeguards, a European, not an American, and a gentleman who says just to make clear what his basic position is, he says military action against Iran would be insane, but he says that Iran has tricked and misled the IAEA at every stage. He believes that you have been unable to prove the core issue that the IAEA is interested in, which is that you have a peaceful program and not a military program.

This is a European who thinks that any military action against Iran is insane, and yet he's saying that your government has simply tricked and misled them and is unwilling to provide assurances. How do you respond?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Well, making claims against Iran is again United States and its allies. We have already expressed our views about nuclear bombs. We said those who are seeking to build nuclear bombs or those who stock pile, they are politically retarded. We think they are stupid because the Arab nuclear bombs is over.

All nuclear facilities in Iran are being monitored by the IAEA. Go and see for yourself. The cameras have been installed. They continue inspections. For example, they want to come and check my office or they may want to inspect all the defense facilities in the country. Who is going to allow that? Which government in the world would allow this? Is that in the statutes of the IAEA?

ZAKARIA: The reason is that there is this history of not being fully honest with the IAEA. That's why the head of the safeguard says Iran tricked and misled the IAEA. The com reactor is a reactor that was only discovered because of intelligence.

So when you say they can come in to your facilities, they can only come in to those facilities they know about. There's a whole set of facilities that might exist that they don't know about, just like the com facility. That's the fear.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): That is a false claim. They have checked our documents and they have confirmed all the evidence Iran has provided. I ask a question. If you are not against the policies of the United States, and if you are an ally of the United States or a permanent member of the Security Council, would the agency talk about Iran in this way? That is clear.

Whoever is against the policies of the United States is either a terrorist or it is going to create a nuclear bomb, or it is against human rights, or it is a dictator. The new administration must accept that the era of colonialism is over.

ZAKARIA: President Ahmadinejad, I just want to be clear on the nuclear issue. Katherine Ashton says that negotiations could begin within weeks. Is your government ready with your proposal and do you welcome negotiations?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Certainly we are ready. Certainly. We are always ready. And certainly we are going to talk about new proposals. We think dialogue is the solution.

ZAKARIA: You have said there are no political prisoners in Iran. The U.N. human rights report just suggested otherwise. What we do know is that the leaders of the Green Movement, the people who ran against you, are essentially under house arrest and have not been heard from.

So I guess my specific question is while I'm in Iran, could I meet with the man who ran against you as president, Mir-Hosein Mousavi, who - who appears to be under house arrest?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): In Iran, we do not have political prisoners. The government has never arrested and imprisoned people. They are against government but they have never been imprisoned based on the complaints of the government. We have an independent judiciary. We have a judicial system independent from government and that system is not under the influence of the government.

ZAKARIA: But so could I meet Mr. Mousavi then?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Let me speak. The judiciary is never under - is not under the influence of the government. So I cannot give orders that you should do this or that.

ZAKARIA: So what is Mr. Mousavi even charged with? It's not clear that he committed any crime. He is in - he is under house arrest for political reasons.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): I am not in charge. I am not in charge of the judiciary. These are your claims. Explanation should come from the judiciary. We should see what the speaker of the judiciary says. I am not a judge and a judge does not receive orders from me.

ZAKARIA: Your chief of staff has spoken a great deal about Iran's pre-Islamic past and said that Iran should be proud of it. Are you proud of Iran's pre-Islamic history?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): We're always proud of our history. Iran has always been the center of friendship and civilization.

ZAKARIA: Your chief of staff has also said that Iran is friendly towards all peoples of the world, including the Israelis. Do you believe Iran should be friendly to the Israeli people? AHMADINEJAD (through translator): People everywhere, ordinary people, what problems do they have? From the very beginning, we're against Zionists. Zionists are neither Christians nor Jewish. They have no religion. Religion is wealth and money.

ZAKARIA: But what do you mean by that? Every person in Israel is by definition a Zionist because they believe in a state for the Jewish people.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): No, no. Zionism is a complicated and terrible party. And to most they have 10,000 members, and 2,000 main members.

ZAKARIA: What does it mean to you? So what does Zionism mean? The rest - you say only 10,000 people in Israel are Zionists?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): No, I don't say they are all there. Some of them are in Europe, some of them are in the United States, and it constitutes a racist group and they consider themselves superior to others.

ZAKARIA: But you think most Israelis are not Zionists in the sense you mean it?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): There's a large number of people who were brought from other countries. They had no job. No house. And they were promised to have jobs and housing. Recently we saw a few hundred, thousands of people stage a demonstration against the Zionists. And if the Zionists allow, we can see them in stations everywhere there.

ZAKARIA: So it sounds like you're saying that Iran could have peaceful relations with Israel if it adopted policies that you appreciate?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): Zionists should go away and they should allow people to choose themselves. If the people of Palestine have the right for self determination, that will be fine. But the Palestinian people have been denied the right to self determination. That is clear.

The regime has been created to dominate the region. Because the regime has been created to secure the interests of some people in the United States and in Europe.


ZAKARIA: We've talked about President Ahmadinejad's external challenges.

Next up, we'll talk about perhaps his greatest challenges, which are internal, coming up next.


ZAKARIA: Mr. Ahmadinejad faces many challenges, but perhaps his biggest ones are internal. There are key forces within Iran that seek to block and limit his powers. Often in recent months, they have seemed to have the support of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who some say may resent Ahmadinejad's street popularity.


ZAKARIA: President Ahmadinejad, may I ask you about something going on in your country. Your supreme leader just gave a statement that perhaps Iran does not need a president and that it would be possible to imagine just having a parliamentary system with the prime minister. That would seem to be an attack on you.

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): That's not my understanding. There have been academic discussions and this question was asked by some academicians and he provided this answer. We have this mechanism in our constitution that things may change. I think there is no problem with that.

ZAKARIA: But if one were to look at the context in which these things are happening, you are president of the country, yet you have not been able to appoint your own Intelligence Minister. You have tried to appoint a foreign minister. You've had difficulties getting your own way. You, yourself said at one point there are the red lines that if they are crossed, you will respond. Isn't it time for you to respond?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): You think presidents in all parts of the world can make decisions by themselves. There are limits everywhere. Legal limits and non-legal limits.

Do you think President Obama can do anything he wants? Certainly he cannot. We have not reached a real justice anywhere in the world. Nowhere in the world. Show me one place in the world where a perfect justice prevails.

Of course, I have serious opponents. That is clear. There are people against us and most of them are politicians, but the people always, our people have always welcomed understanding and dialogue.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about the issue of corruption. You have a reputation in Iran is that you are not a corrupt man, and in fact that's been one of the reasons you have had a certain support, that unlike the old guard, you were seen as clean as we say in the United States.

But now there are serious charges against your chief of staff involving billions of dollars. Do you think this is an effort by your opponents to discredit you?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): I think some of them are political matters. The government is clean. None of the members in the government have ever participated in such corruptions. There might be some political competitions. The judiciary will see to that and there will be no accusation against the government.

ZAKARIA: Mr. President, you're people are telling me we have to go. Can I ask you one more question? He's the boss. When the Islamic republic took over in Iran, on almost every social and economic measure, Iran and Turkey were the same. Today, Turkey has moved so far ahead on every economic measure, on every social measure, isn't that a judgment of history on the success of the Islamic Republic of Iran?

AHMADINEJAD (through translator): There are different conditions. Of course, we will be very happy to see Turkey developing. We are not against that. We would be happy to see other countries to develop. But Turkey has not experienced an eight year imposed war. And Turkey has never experienced decades of sanctions.

But in some parts, we are ahead of Turkey. Turkey has more than $300 billion of foreign debt. And Iran almost nothing. And scientifically, we have progressed. But we never compare our situation with Turkey.

We are building our nation. We are going to develop our economy. And the future belongs to us.

ZAKARIA: President Ahmadinejad, thank you very much.


ZAKARIA: Back in just a moment with my final thoughts on President Ahmadinejad and on my brief visit to Iran.


ZAKARIA: We are back from Tehran.

In place of our usual closing segment, the quiz, the "Book of the Week," and "The Last Look," I thought I'd give you some of my impressions of Tehran and Iran and Iranians. It is, of course, a snapshot of a very brief visit, but I thought it might add some color to the picture you may have of Iran.

Tehran is a big, sprawling city of eight million people, nestled in a semi-Arab plain in the shadow of the Alborz Mountains behind me. The highest peaks of these mountains are always snow capped with a well known ski resort, yes, Iranian Ski.

My first impression of Tehran was of cleanliness. It is a remarkably clean city for one in the developing world. Certainly a far cry from the chaos of Cairo, for example. The streets are swept daily, garbage is picked up daily. Traffic in the city is terrible, but that's largely a consequence of a growing middle class that buys more cars each year.

The city has a large network of roads and highways, and public buses and the underground metro, all of them effective and clean. The overall impression is of order.

Iranians I spoke with said it was attributable to Iranian fetish with cleanliness and order, though some did credit to city government. Remember the last mayor of Tehran is currently the president of Iran, and the current mayor of Tehran is reported to be eyeing the presidency as well.

Tehran is also a bustling cosmopolitan city, from the bazaar and shops of every kind that dot neighborhoods, you've seen Iranians doing business. Because of sanctions, you see very few western brands. Every banks, store and boutique has a local name with local products.

There are some exceptions. Coca-Cola is here as it is everywhere.

One of the other effects of sanctions has been that larger and larger parts of the economy are now controlled by Iran's revolutionary guard, the Elite Corp of the Armed Forces. Iranians are a worldly (ph) people and don't like the sanctions and their isolation from the world, but they are also a nationalistic people and they seem to resent that they, ordinary people, pay the price for the actions of their government.

Women in Iran are covered from head to toe as you know, but somehow Iran's women have managed to take this restriction and turn it into a fashion statement. So you see highly tailored outfits, colorful head scarves, and peeking out from it all, beautifully made up faces. Women in Iran are educated, articulate and well integrated into society. When you watch them driving their cars to work, you are reminded that women in the Islamic Republic of Iran are considerably more liberated than women in Saudi Arabia.

The talk of the people I met with, the political chatter, was of the risk between President Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Now, what is hard for most westerners to understand is that in this debate in Iran, Ahmadinejad is the moderate. He has been trying to clip the wings of the clergy. He has advocated loosening up some of the restrictions on women, allowing them to attend football games, for example.

He speaks as you heard of Iran's pre-Islamic past with pride, something that is heresy to the clergy. And many here believe that he wants to be the Iranian president who will normalize relations with the West. But with all that's going on now between the Saudi plot and the nuclear deadlock, that appears a very distant prospect.

Thanks to all of you for being part of this special program this week. I will see you next week.