TEHRAN — Two days before he officially took office, Iran’s president-elect touched off an international uproar Friday with disputed comments about its archenemy Israel, engendering a furious rejoinder from the Israeli prime minister that illustrated the wide gap between the two countries, fed by decades of hostility and mutual distrust.
The president-elect, Hasan Rouhani, attending a rally marking an annual pro-Palestinian holiday in Iran known as Quds Day, a reference to the Arabic name for Jerusalem, said in comments to state television that “a sore has been sitting on the body of the Islamic world for many years,” a reference to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
Although Rouhani never mentioned Israel in the television clip, nor used the favored Iranian description of Israel as the “Zionist regime,” at least three Iranian news agencies appeared to misquote him as saying: the “Zionist regime is a sore which must be removed.” Later in the day they posted corrections.
Compared with the anti-Israeli invective often heard from other Iranian leaders, most notably Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the remarks were mild — a possible indication of Rouhani’s effort to portray himself as a moderate who wants to take steps to ease Iran’s tensions with the West.
Nevertheless, the initial translation of Rouhani’s comments infuriated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. He has previously described Rouhani as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” whose June 14 election victory was unlikely to change Iran’s policies, particularly regarding what Israel views as an Iranian determination to become a nuclear weapons power.
“Rouhani’s true face has been revealed earlier than expected,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “Even if they will now rush to deny his remarks, this is what the man thinks and this is the plan of the Iranian regime. These remarks by President Rouhani must rouse the world from . . . the illusion that part of it has been caught up in since the Iranian elections.
“The president there has changed but the goal of the regime has not: To achieve nuclear weapons in order to threaten Israel, the Middle East, and the peace and security of the entire world. A country that threatens the destruction of the state of Israel must not be allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction.”
When told later that the original translation had been wrong, and that Rouhani had in fact not referred directly to Israel or said anything about removing the “sore,” Netanyahu’s office was unmoved and seemingly uninterested in nuance.
“We stand by what we say,” said his spokesman, Mark Regev. “The remarks attributed to him we think, we are sure, that represents his true outlook.”
Whether intended or not, the episode represented Rouhani’s first international test over Israel, one of the most vexing subjects for Iranian leaders.
While he has espoused an approach of moderation that would help improve Iran’s relations with the outside world — an approach that helped him win the election — he had been expected to say something critical about Israel at the Quds Day celebration, an annual ritual here for Iranian politicians and a reflection of what they view as Israel’s illegitimacy.
Walking among people holding up signs saying “Death to Israel” and pictures of maimed Palestinian children, Rouhani, who is nicknamed “the diplomatic sheik” for his suave sentences, gave a preplanned statement to waiting television cameras.
“In our region, a sore has been sitting on the body of the Islamic world for many years, in the shadow of the occupation of the holy land of Palestine and the dear Quds,” he said. “This day is in fact a reminder of the fact that Muslim people will not forget their historic right and will continue to stand against aggression and tyranny.”
As Israel and its supporters often point out, there is a long history in Iran of official insults aimed at Israel and the Jewish religion. In 2005, Ahmadinejad was famously quoted as saying Israel must be “wiped off the map,” during a conference called “A world without Zionism.”
While it later became clear from tapes of his remarks that he had actually said “Israel must vanish from the pages of history,” it made his international image as a staunch anti-Semitic hard-liner. That image has only been reinforced by Ahmadinejad’s publicly expressed doubts that the Holocaust ever happened. On Friday, in his final public speech, Ahmadinejad repeated those doubts.
In 2006, Ahmadinejad organized a conference in Tehran to which famous Holocaust deniers were invited, among them the former Ku Klux Klan member David Duke.