The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, took the unusual step on Thursday of explaining that while he strongly opposed the state of Israel, his hostility did not extend to the Israeli people.
“We have no problem with people and nations,” he said. “Of course we do not recognize a government or a nation for the Zionist regime.”
Ahmadinejad has long been seen as a threat to Israel, especially since he angered the West and Jews worldwide in 2005 when he repeated a slogan from the early days of the revolution, saying, “Israel should be wiped off the map.”
But on Thursday, he defended his vice president for tourism, Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, who created a storm of protest among legislators and senior clerics over the summer when he said that Iran was a friend of the Israeli people.
Analysts viewed Ahmadinejad’s public support for Mashai’s remarks as a sign that Iran might be softening its position amid increasing pressure by the West over its nuclear program.
“It looks like the remarks are a policy,” said Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst in Tehran. “Despite the opposition, they were repeated, no apology was made and the president supported it today.”
In mid-July, Mashai was quoted as saying that Iran was “a friend of Israeli people.” He then repeated the comment in August, saying there was “no hostility toward the Israeli people.”
Ahmadinejad backed up the comments at a news conference on Thursday, arguing that what Mashai said was “the position of the government.”
Ahmadinejad made clear his opposition to Israel, saying that while “some say the idea of Greater Israel has expired, I say the idea of lesser Israel has expired too.” He also called the Holocaust a “fake” and accused Israel of perpetrating a holocaust on Palestinians.
But he added that the people who lived in Israel were tricked into moving there, and that the Zionist government used them as a shield to protect itself.
“We are opposed to the idea that the people who live there should be thrown into the sea or be burnt,” he said. “We believe that all the people who live there, the Jews, Muslims and Christians, should take part in a free referendum and choose their government.”
Mashai is a close political ally of Ahmadinejad and his daughter is married to Ahmadinejad’s son.
Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on state matters, has maintained silence over Mashai’s remarks despite the anger that they have inspired. Several senior clerics and some 200 members of Parliament called on Ahmadinejad to dismiss Mashai.
Opposition to Israel is one of the founding principles of Iran’s Islamic government. Iran does not recognize Israel and refers to it only as “the Zionist regime.”
At the news conference, Ahmadinejad also restated his government’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.