Last week's comments by Iran's newly elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Israel should be wiped off the map were no more than a repetition of Iran's long-standing rhetoric toward the Jewish state enunciated by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
However, as most Iranians know full well, such comments, repeated regularly at state-organised demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities, are just empty threats. As one commentator reminded us last week, many Arab heads of state, some close to US, make similar statements for internal consumption in Arabic, yet their comments are not picked up by Western news agencies and repeated on every news bulletin – Iran's position on Israel is no different to that of such Arab states.
The rhetoric of the Iranian president should not be mistaken for foreign policy, as the official statement by Irans ministry of foreign affairs on Sunday October 30 clarified: The Islamic Republic of Iran is committed to its engagements based on the UN charter and has never resorted to, nor threatened to resort to, force against another country.
In fact, Iran during the rule of the Shia republic is the only country in the Islamic world that has bought arms from Israel. Even as Ayatollah Khomeini was promising to wipe out Israel – along with the “Great Satan” USA, of course – Khomeini himself was sanctioning secret negotiations with the Reagan administration: Iran was paying for its Israeli arms by depositing funds in a Swiss bank account for the US-backed Nicaraguan Contras – all this through the good offices of Oliver North in what became known as Irangate.
On another occasion in the 1980s a planeload of Israeli arms destined for Tehran's use came down in Turkish airspace, fuelling speculation that such shipments were continuing long after the Irangate scandal.
The question remains, however, why has Ahmadinejad repeated this rhetoric so publicly at this time? The BBC Iran analyst claims that this own goal by the Iranian president is a consequence of his inexperience – the fact that he does not realise that his comments are extensively reported by the international media and he cannot repeat the kind of populist slogans he was used to making when he was the little known mayor of Tehran.
There is no doubt that many inside the regime were quick to distance Iran from the implications of the words. One observer in Tehran wrote that Ahmadinejad's comments sounded like an invitation to Bush and the US to attack Iran. Others have written with sarcasm that maybe Ahmadinejad is a secret royalist who is keen to give the US a pretext to invade.
Even before Ahmadinejad's alleged faux pas, Tehran was full of rumours that every day his office receives phone calls from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, ticking him off for making this or that mistake. In September in an interview with an Arabic paper, Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying Iran might impose an oil embargo in protest at western policies. The next day his office issued an official denial of the comments, blaming the unfortunate journalist who reported them and even claiming that the Iranian president was not aware he was being interviewed.
That denial was clearly prompted by Khamenei, who subsequently expanded the authority of the Expediency Council, an appointed body whose long-time chairman, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was a rival of Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential elections. The council was also given supervisory authority over the Iranian parliament, prompting accusations by MPs that it was set on monopolising power.
One explanation of Ahmadinejad's comments is that, following its victory of seeing a Shia state established in Iraq (the main component of the occupation government being pro-Iran Shias), the Iranian regime's image is tainted by its support for the US-UK-imposed government in Iraq. As the only country that has directly benefited from imperialist military action in the region, Iran does feel isolated. That is why, in the words of a Palestinian official, the Iranian president's comments reflect Iran's weakness in the region, and represents an attempt to regain some credibility as an anti-Zionist, anti-US regime.
Over the last few months, especially since the coming to power in Baghdad of Iran's main allies, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Daawa Party, as well as most of the Arab press are critical of Iran's influence in the region. This could explain Ahmadinejad's outburst, as Tehran tries to distance itself from accusations of complicity with US policies.
Another explanation could be found in the increasing role of Israel and Mossad agents in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, a one-time ally of Iran, has become much closer to the US and Israel than Tehran would like. The presence of large numbers of Mossad and other Israeli security forces in Iraqi Kurdistan, many of them helping rightwing Iranian Kurdish opposition groups, has made the government in Tehran nervous. Iran sees Iraqi Kurdistan as being used by Israel and the USA as a base to strengthen their opposition to Tehran in the same way that Iraqi Kurdistan was used to destabilise the Baathist regime.
This debacle, as many before it, demonstrates once more the need to build genuine solidarity between the peoples of Iran and Palestine. Unlike Islamic/Arab leaders who shout empty slogans about Israel often to cover their wheeling and dealings with that country, socialists and communists in Iran have always fought for Palestine – not because it is an Islamic cause, but because they understand the need to fight the apartheid regime that has wiped out another country, Palestine, in their region. This is genuine solidarity with Palestine and in the long term the only one that will matter.
About Yassamine Mather is a member of the eitorial board of Critique, Journal of Socialist Theory, published by Centre for the Study of Socialist Theory and Movements, Glasgow University.