At a meeting to introduce two Iranian-made satellites and mark Iran's National Day of Space Technology widely cited by news agencies, the 56-year-old former civil-engineering student suggested he could be his country's first astronaut.
At the same meeting, he was quoted as saying Iran's "youth" hoped "to send a man into space within the next four [or] five years."
"I'm ready to be the first Iranian to be sacrificed by the scientists of my country and go into space, even though I know there are a lot of candidates," AFP quoted Ahmadinejad as saying, via Iran's ISNA news agency.
Ahmadinejad's apparent quip follows debate over the veracity of Iran's claim last week that it had successfully launched a monkey into space and it returned safely, and with tough scrutiny being given a fresh announcement by Tehran that it had made a "significant" breakthrough in stealth technology with a domestically built fighter jet.
U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona), who has consistently been among the most hawkish U.S. officials with respect to Iran's leadership, responded to Ahmadinejad's astronaut comment by equating the Iranian president with a monkey:
So Ahmadinejad wants to be first Iranian in space - wasn't he just there last week? "Iran launches monkey into space" news.yahoo.com/iran-launches-…— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) February 4, 2013
The former Republican presidential nominee subsequently sought to deflect possible criticism that his remarks might be inappropriate, tweeting:
Re: Iran space tweet - lighten up folks, can't everyone take a joke?— John McCain (@SenJohnMcCain) February 4, 2013
One of the first U.S. officials to chide McCain for the tweet was a fellow Republican, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan. After commenting that "I can't believe he hasn't deleted it & apologized yet," Amash suggested there was racism behind the senior senator's statement:
Maybe you should wisen up & not make racist jokes. “@senjohnmccain: Re: Iran space tweet - lighten up folks, can't everyone take a joke?”— Justin Amash (@repjustinamash) February 4, 2013
In 2010, Iran reportedly launched a rocket carrying a mouse, a turtle, and worms. A launch in 2011 ended in the death of the monkey strapped inside the rocket.
Ahmadinejad won his second term in 2009 in a hotly contested vote that prompted charges of widescale fraud and polarized swaths of the electorate.
Some observers regard a recent change to Iran's election laws as an effort to forestall the outgoing president or his allies from wielding undue influence over future elections, including the presidential vote in June.
He used an appearance before the parliament this weekend to attack the brother of a powerful former presidential candidate and current speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani.
-- Andy Heil