When Iranian officials say Israel will be wiped off the map, does it mean they are suggesting that Iran should be the one to do it?
The debate was renewed last week by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. When an interviewer from a French news magazine suggested that Paris might be reluctant to sell weaponry to Iran because the Islamic republic had called for Israel's destruction and had missiles that carried the inscription "Death to Israel", Zarif objected.
No officials from the Islamic republic had ever called for the destruction of Israel, he said; rather, he claimed, the official line has always been that Israel's downfall would be of its own doing.
The remarks were not well-received by the hard-line conservative camp, which answered with headlines accusing Zarif of distorting the words and clear policy of the Islamic republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The back and forth over the correct interpretation of Khomeini's words is not uncommon in recent years, and highlights the vast differences between pragmatists who favor moderate policies and hard-liners who support a return to what they see as revolutionary values and principles.
Zarif made the controversial statement during a December 19 interview with the French weekly Le Point in which he accused Israel, not Iran, of being the aggressor. "Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visited the Dimona power plant, where [Israel's] nuclear weapons are manufactured, and said that he would destroy Iran," Zarif said. "He did not say that our country must disappear, but that he would destroy it.
The Iranian foreign minister was apparently referring to Netanyahu's August 29 visit to the Shimon Peres Nuclear Research Center near the desert town of Dimona, where he warned, "Whoever threatens us with destruction puts himself in similar danger."
Israel does not deny or confirm possessing nuclear weapons, but is believed to have about 80 nuclear warheads.
"For our part, when did we say that we would destroy Israel? Show me one single person who said that. Nobody has spoken such words," the Iranian foreign minister added.
What The Imam Said
Iran does not recognize the state of Israel. The country provides financial and moral support to groups fighting Israel, including the Lebanese Hizballah, which Tehran views as resistance movements.
"Death To Israel" is a regular chant at state-sponsored rallies in Iran, and the country regularly holds anti-Israeli events, including cartoon contests and seminars, and the annual Al-Quds day rally where Israeli flags are often set alight.
In his interview with Le Point, Zarif said that even former hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, known for his anti-Israeli rhetoric, had not called for the destruction of Israel. "He pointed out that Imam [Khomeini] had said that Israel would disappear from the pages of time. He did not say that he would destroy it. He pointed out that Israel would suffer that fate by pursuing its policies," Zarif told Le Point.
The ultra hard-line Iranian daily Kayhan accused Zarif of carelessness and distortion in a piece titled: Don't Distort. The Destruction of Israel Is The Islamic Republic's Official Policy. "The Imam clearly said that Israel must be wiped out," Kayhan said, citing Ayatollah Khomeini.
The daily also quoted a statement by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said in 2012 that his country "intervened in anti-Israeli matters, its result was victory in the 33-day war by Hizballah against Israel [in 2006], and in the 22-day war" between Hamas and Israel in Gaza.
"From now on, in any place, if any nation or any group fights the Zionist regime, confronts it, we will support it and we will help. We have no fear expressing this," Khamenei said in 2012 speech quoted by Kayhan.
Kayhan listed a number of reasons for Iran's stance, saying that Israel had no "legitimacy," and comparing it to South Africa's Apartheid regime.
Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi, a member of Iran's Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, accused Zarif of lying. "These gentlemen have said that the Imam didn't say that Israel must be wiped out, [that the] Imam has said that Israel will be wiped out on its own, automatically. Well, this is a lie," Azghadi said at a December 24 meeting in the Iranian capital.
The hard-line Fars news agency, affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, appeared to challenge Zarif by posting on Twitter old video segments of Khomeini making anti-Israeli comments, including one where he called Israel a "cancerous tumor" and said that Muslims should revolt against it.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi continued the debate on December 25, stating that Zarif's statement "was the repeat and exact utterance of the remarks by Imam Khomeini and leader, who said that Israel would cease to exist in 25 years."
"In his response to the trick question by the French journalist, Zarif, instead of taking on a defensive stance, pointed to the differences between Netanyahu's remarks and Iran's position," Qassemi said, while accusing Zarif's critics of providing fodder for "evil-minded enemies of Iran."
"It seems they are trying to distort a stance [by Zarif] that was in full agreement with Iran's national interests, into a story against the country's interests, and thereby let evil-minded enemies of Iran use it."
Amid the back and forth, some suggested that it was time for Iran to reassess its official animosity against the Jewish state.
Seyed Hadi Borhani, an assistant professor of Middle East studies at Tehran University, wrote in a piece published by the news site Khabar Online that the policy had had "high costs" for the Islamic republic.
"Israel can continue its hostile moves against Iran by referring to it," Borhani wrote. "The most recent examples are the sabotaging acts of Israel in Iran's nuclear sites or its repeated attacks on Iranian forces deployed in Syria."
"Whether we want it or not, a big part of the world sees these actions as Israel's defense against Iran's official efforts to destroy the country," Borhani added, stating that "Iran does not aim to physically destroy Israel or kill its population."
"The main [point] of Iran's policy toward Israel is the change of its racist regime," he said.
For his part, outspoken Tehran-based analyst Sadegh Zibakalam said the big problem faced by Zarif was not "whether Iran will destroy Israel or whether Israel will be destroyed on its own."
"The fundamental problem," he wrote on Twitter, "is who gave Iran the responsibility of destroying Israel? And are most of the people in favor of or willing to destroy Israel?"
The issue whether anti-Israeli statements by Iranian officials amount to a call to war was also debated under former President Ahmadinejad, who on several occasions called for the destruction of Israel.
Some suggested at the time that the comments were not a military threat against Israel, but a call for an end to the occupation of Palestinian lands.