Iran's ex-president softens stance toward Israel

Apr 29, 2013, 7:00 AM EDT
(REUTERS/Mohanned Faisal)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran's influential former president says his country is not at war with archenemy Israel, the media reported Monday, in the latest departure by a high-profile politician from the strident anti-Israel line traditionally taken by many senior Iranian leaders.

The remarks by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani follows calls from figures across the political spectrum to repair the damage to Iran's international reputation they said had been caused by outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called Israel a doomed state and questioned the extent of the Holocaust.

Several of them, including Rafsanjani, are considered possible contenders in June elections to replace Ahmadinejad as president.

"We are not at war with Israel," said the ex-president, quoted by several Iranian newspapers including the pro-reform Shargh daily. He said Iran would not initiate war against Israel, but "if Arab nations wage a war, then we would help."

Comments on Iran's policies on Israel must tread a fine line. While it's possible to question Ahmadinejad's remarks, it's dangerous to be seen as contradicting Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has called Israel a "cancer" in the region.

The remarks are unable to herald any significant changes in Iranian policy, but may indicate the assessment of politicians that Ahmadinejad's particular brand of strident anti-Israel rhetoric may hurt him with many voters.

Rafsanjani is considered a political centrist, attractive to some reformists but not a candidate who would challenge the dominance of the clerical establishment. He has not ruled out a run at the presidency himself, but is more likely to throw his considerable influence behind a center candidate and may be burnishing his moderate credentials.

Clerical conservatives, who once backed Ahmadinejad but turned on him after he challenged the authority Khamenei in 2011, also want to distance themselves from the president.

Conservative and hard-line criticism of Ahmadinejad feed into their general line that the outgoing president is a loose cannon. They have focused in particular on his remarks on the Holocaust.

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf — a Tehran mayor and conservative who is considered a potential candidate in the June presidential election — said the president's statements have damaged Iran.

"Suddenly, the issue of the Holocaust was raised without any attention to its repercussions and impacts. Did that have any benefit for the progress of Iran and the Palestinians?" said Ghalibaf in remarks carried by the conservative Tasnim news website on April 23.

"I did not support denial of the Holocaust in the way Ahmadinejad did. We have not have benefited by the denial of the Holocaust," said senior lawmaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, a hardliner whose daughter has married the son of Khamenei. His remarks appeared in semi-official ISNA news agency on Sunday April 28.

Another hardline lawmaker, Mohammad Hasan Abutorabifard, was quoted by Tasnim on Sunday as calling Ahmadinejad's statements "uncalculated."

Iran and Israel consider each other dangerous enemies. Tel Aviv has not ruled out a military option against Iran's nuclear facilities, which the West suspects are aimed at weapons development. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Iran backs militant groups in Israel's neighbors, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.