Saturday, October 29, 2005

Return to Hard Rhetoric Dashes Hope of End to Crisis

Tim Butcher, The Telegraph UK:
Iran was on a collision course with the West yesterday as its president defied a diplomatic onslaught led by Washington and London to withdraw his calls for Israel to be "wiped off the map".

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supported by more than a million of his countrymen attending annual anti-Israel protest rallies in all major cities across Iran, said he stood by his remarks.

The president marched alongside a mob of noisy students in Teheran waving placards carrying the exact words he used at an anti-Zionism rally earlier this week, and mocked Israel's strongest supporter, the United States.

"They become upset when they hear any voice of truth-seeking, " he said. "They think they are the absolute rulers of the world."

By returning so bluntly to the old anti-Israel rhetoric common during Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979, the president has radically changed Iran's relations with the West. READ MORE

After a decade when most observers believed that the Islamic Republic had become more modern, Mr Ahmadinejad has taken a more hardline position.

With Iran continuing work on its nuclear programme, it is a change of policy with potentially enormous implications.

Next month's deadline for Iran to allow international scrutiny of its nuclear programme will now be the focus of increased diplomatic attention.

So far Iran's belligerence appears to have wrong-footed the West, with no obvious international support for Tony Blair's veiled warning that force could be used against Iran.

While European and western nations have condemned the Iranian president's remarks, the Arab and Muslim world has been largely silent.

Only Turkey, a Muslim but secular state, has called for Mr Ahmadinejad to withdraw his comments.

Yesterday's Jerusalem Day protests across Iran were always going to involve colourful displays of anti-Zionist emotion, but they were made even more important by the president's comments earlier this week.

Speaking to the Iranian national news agency, Mr Ahmadinejad made light of Israel and America's reaction.

"They are free to talk but their words do not have any validity," he said. "It is natural that if a word is right and just it will provoke a reaction.

"They are cheeky humans, and they think that the entire world should obey them. They destroy Palestinian families and expect nobody to object to them."

Earlier there had been some signs of moderation from within the Iranian regime. The Iranian Embassy in Moscow said Mr Ahmadinejad "did not have any intention to speak in sharp terms and engage in a conflict".

The former president Hashemi Rafsanjani also took a more placatory position, suggesting yesterday that the fate of Palestine be decided by a referendum.

"If Muslims and Palestinians agree [to a referendum], it will be a retreat but let's still hold a referendum,'' he said during his weekly sermon.

But Mr Ahmadinejad's appearance at the Teheran rally dashed any hopes of a swift end to the crisis.

Demonstrators chanted "Israel is approaching its death" and many showed that they were willing to give their lives in the fight against Israel by donning white shrouds.

A resolution was read at the end of the rally reiterating "the position declared by the president that the Zionist regime must be wiped out".

The Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, defended his president's comments, saying they represented Iran's long-held policy of not recognising Israel.

"Unfortunately the Western countries have remained silent on the increasing inhuman activities of Israel," he said.

Turkey, which has a land border with Iran, became the only Muslim country to condemn the president's remarks.

"Turkey believes that regional conflicts can only be solved through dialogue and peaceful methods," Namik Tan, a foreign ministry spokesman, said in a statement.

"Turkey believes that international relations should be developed in a spirit of intercultural harmony and dialogue at a time when our world faces the danger of a clash between civilisations," he added.

"Naturally it is not possible for us to approve of such a statement [by Ahmadinejad)."