Iran's top authority lashed out Friday with some of his harshest words in recent memory on Israel.
Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, the ayatollah who is Iran's top political and military figure, said its hostility to Israel extended beyond the government to the Israeli people. His words undercut recent overtures by top Iranian officials.
Khamenei said Iran and Israel were on a “collision course,” a statement that could increase tensions in a Middle East already fearful of a conflict between the countries.
“Who are Israelis?” he told thousands at Friday prayers in Tehran. “They are responsible for usurping houses, territory, farmlands and businesses. They are combatants at the disposal of Zionist operatives. A Muslim nation cannot remain indifferent vis-a-vis such people who are stooges at the service of the arch-foes of the Muslim world.”
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Israel accuses Iran of seeking nuclear weapons under the guise of a peaceful energy program and supporting anti-Israeli militant groups in Lebanon and Palestinian territories. Iran's leaders have called for the destruction of the Jewish state, which they consider a Western outpost.
The comments came amid a controversy over remarks by an Iranian official close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a vice president over tourism, was quoted in July as saying Iranians were friends with Israelis, despite conflict between the governments.
“Today, Iran is friends with the American and Israeli people,” he said, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. “No nation in the world is our enemy.”
Hard-liners pounced. But Thursday, Ahmadinejad appeared to back up his deputy, voicing sympathy for Israelis, even as he predicted Israel's demise.
“The Iranian nation never recognized Israel and will never ever recognize it,” he said in a news conference. “But we feel pity for those who have been deceived or smuggled into Israel to be oppressed citizens in Israel.”
Ahmadinejad is to arrive in New York within days for the opening session of the U.N. General Assembly.