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Iran: President’s Anti-Israel Remarks Spark Internal Criticism

Mahmud Ahmadinejad at the anti-Zionism conference (Fars) Last week, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said that "Israel should be wiped off the map." The comments drew international condemnation, including a statement by the UN Security Council, and prompted Iran’s Foreign Ministry to assert that Iran has no attention of attacking the Jewish state. Ahmadinejad has since softened his tone as well, but some observers say the damage is done. Many are warning about the consequences of Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and confrontational approach -- and its possibly negative impact on Iran’s interests.

Prague, 1 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- While hard-line Iranian officials have tried to play down President Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel comments, others have warned that such remarks do not serve Iran’s national interests.

Among them is former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist, who said on 31 October without naming his successor, "We should not say things that create economic and political problems in the world."

Ahmadinejad’s comments on 26 October came amid increasing pressure on Iran to give up its uranium-enrichment program or face a referral to the UN Security Council. Following Ahmadinejad’s remarks to a forum in Tehran called "The World Without Zionism," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said there is increased concern that the clerical regime is a threat to global security.

With the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) set to meet in two weeks to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue, foreign diplomats familiar with the case also warn that Ahmadinejad’s comments have added to international distrust and heightened international concern over Iran’s atomic activities.

This comes from a view among some Iranian politicians that under [former President] Khatami’s government, there was too much moderation and leniency toward the world and it led the world to ask for more." -- Iranian analyst

Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science in Tehran, told RFE/RL that the comments have hurt Iran’s international standing. "It doesn’t help our situation right now. Even radical Arab countries don’t say that Israel should be eradicated," he said.

"Regarding the Palestinian issue, we are more Catholic than the pope. I think we cannot say whatever we want and then expect that the world will respect us and say if you want to go nuclear or go after something else, it’s without problem. I think a big portion of our problems on the international scene are related to the behavior that we consider revolutionary," Zibakalam said.

Some observers believe Ahmadinejad’s remarks are due to his inexperience in international affairs, political immaturity, and lack of subtlety. The Islamic Republic of Iran does not recognize Israel, and its founder, the late Ayatohllah Ruhollah Khomeini, openly called for the destruction of the Jewish state. But Ahmadinejad was the first top Iranian official in recent years to repeat that call.

Mohammad Sadegh Javadi-Hessar, a political analyst based in Mashhad, said Ahmadinejad likely made his comments under pressure from his hard-line supporters.

"Maybe his stance is partly due to pressure from radical circles for changes in Iran’s political and diplomatic behavior and one of this changes could be a harsher stance on Israel," Javadi-Hessar told RFE/RL. "And also he has felt that if he has a confrontational and aggressive style on the international scene, maybe he would make [the West] back off. This comes from a view among some Iranian politicians that under [former President] Khatami’s government, there was too much moderation and leniency toward the world and it led the world to ask for more."

Javadi-Hessar said Ahmadinejad, a former mayor of Tehran and a former member of Iran’s Basij force, used to routinely make anti-Israel comments on different occasions. He said the Iranian president may not have been aware that his remarks could lead to a storm of international condemnation.

But Masud Behnud, a veteran Iranian journalist, believes the comments were carefully calculated. "In an interview broadcast by Iran’s state television, in response to a question that his comments have created an international uproar, Mr. Ahmadinejad said, ‘If others have something to say they should also say it and we will see whether it will be mentioned,’" Behnud said. "I think this shows that Ahmadinejad wanted to make the headlines, he wanted to cause an uproar and become a personality in the radical world and I believe that he has achieved his goal."

The call for Israel to be destroyed was not the first diplomatic gaffe by the new president. Many also criticized his speech on 17 September to the UN General assembly, calling it a diplomatic blunder. Ahmadinejad was expected to offer proposals that would end months of standoff over Iran’s nuclear activities. But he used most of that speech to accuse the U.S. and its allies of bullying others and expressed concern over West’s "nuclear apartheid."

The speech was also criticized inside Iran. Former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said Iran needed "diplomacy and not slogans."

Behnud, the veteran journalist, said Ahmadinejad is deepening the split in the Iranian society. "These two parts are growing apart and don’t communicate," he said.

"Unlike Khatami’s government, who tried to bring these two parts together, Mr. Ahmadinejad is dividing these two groups," Behnud added. "He is putting emphasis on only one group and he is ruling with that group. The second group includes [those people] who are in favor of changes; they are half of society [but ] they don’t have any real power. The group [of hard-liners and second-generation revolutionaries] that Ahmadinejad is relying on is not aware of the values of the modern world and is against them."

Ahmadinejad last week defended his anti-Israel remarks as "fair." But on 30 October, he appeared to take a small step back, saying the only solution to the Middle East conflict would be democracy for the Palestinians. He also called on UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is due to visit Tehran later this month, to put Palestinian democracy at the top of his agenda.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.