Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president, defied politicians and senior clergy on Thursday by backing remarks made by one of his closest aides over friendship with the Israeli people.
Although Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is more used to attacking Israel and predicting its demise, he defended Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, the vice-president for tourism, against calls to sack him for saying Iran was “a friend of [the] Israeli people”.
The president on Thursday made the first public defence of Mr Mashaei, saying his government was, in any case, acting independently of the Qom-based senior clergy.
While reiterating that the Israeli government was “illegitimate”, he said Iran’s policy was friendship with the Israeli people, who had been used as “human shields” for the regime’s “atrocities”.
Iran’s government faces mounting pressure at home for spiralling inflation and abroad because of its refusal to abide by United Nations resolutions to suspend its uranium enrichment programme.
Some analysts say the Israeli remarks are Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s way of soothing tensions with the west, particularly as Iran continues to defy the international community over its nuclear programme. He dismissed the threat of a new round of sanctions after the International Atomic Energy Agency this week criticised Iranian co-operation.
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad made the comments ahead of his trip to New York to attend the UN General Assembly.
Despite his radicalism and defiant attitude, the Iranian president would, analysts say, like to be the first Iranian leader to make significant contact with the US after decades of enmity.
“Mr Ahmadi-Nejad seemingly thinks the route to Washington goes through Tel Aviv, which has made his government raise the issue of friendship with the Israeli people,” said Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, a former vice-president. “But he would be allowed by higher authorities [Ayatollah Kham enei] to go only as far as nothing significant happens between Iran and the US.”