Iranian Leaders Linking U.S., Israel More Often

In Iran, many officials are blaming Israel, or the Zionist lobby, for U.S. policies toward their country — especially the crisis over Iran's nuclear activities. But until recently, it was rare that officials linked Israel and the United States in the same sentence. Observers say the change is due to the influence of President Ahmadinejad. But many Iranians say the government's recent obsession with Israel is meant to hide its own failings.

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Since the Islamic Revolution 27 years ago, Iran has portrayed itself as an enemy of Israel and Iran's rhetorical attacks on the Jewish state have intensified since last year's election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But not all Iranians support the current campaign against Israel, as NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Tehran.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Before President Ahmadinejad was elected, it seemed as if Israel and the Palestinians had become a side issue in Iranian affairs. Ahmadinejad's predecessor, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, had taken the position that Iran would back the Palestinians if they reached settlement with Israel. But within weeks of Ahmadinejad's taking office, he began to make speeches questioning the Holocaust and attacking Israel's right to exist.

President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Speaking foreign language)

SHUSTER: We simply asked the Western powers a question, Ahmadinejad said. Your excuse and logic for supporting Zionist crimes and criminals is that 60 years ago, so you claim, during World War II, some of the Jews were burnt in crematoria. Why should the Palestinian people pay? He went on, give them a piece of your land and the whole thing will be over.

This is a theme that Ahmadinejad has returned to again and again over the past year. And now it has been picked up by many others here, both within and outside of Iran's government.

In an interview at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Mohammad Fortiahfur(ph), asserted that U.S. policy in the Middle East is now under the control of Israel and the pro-Israeli lobby in the U.S.

Mr. MOHAMMAD FORTIAHFUR (Iranian Foreign Ministry): There are many reports written in this regard that a very minority group are actually controlling the U.S. foreign policy.

SHUSTER: And you believe this?

Mr. FORTIAHFUR: I believe on realities.

SHUSTER: Fortiahfur's comments on Israel and the Israeli lobby were not a response to a question. He offered them unprompted as part of an analysis of U.S. policy on Iran. The U.S. is trying to provoke another crisis in the region, Fortiahfur said, spurred on by Israel.

Mr. FORTIAHFUR: I think lobby of Zionism in Washington is very active in this regard. And I'm sure that they don't necessarily follow the interest of the American people. It is important that the people of the United States be informed and cautious about such policy of the administration and would not permit that administration to create new foreign crisis.

SHUSTER: It's no secret that Israel has informed the Bush administration and indeed the Clinton Administration before it about its fears of a nuclear-armed Iran. But in recent years, and interview with dozens of Iranian officials and analysts, the issue of Israel rarely arose. Now it seems to be everywhere.

Masoud Dehnamaki is a conservative journalist and filmmaker and a strong supporter of Ahmadinejad. Dehnamaki said he is convinced Israel is doing everything it can to prevent any compromise emerging between Iran and the U.S.

Mr. MASOUD DEHNAMAKI (Journalist and Filmmaker): (Through translator) The Israelis are using the U.S. Government as sort of a protective shield in front of themselves and they try to defend themselves like that, by putting U.S. government in between. So it's actually the Israeli government that takes benefits from such conflict between Iran and the United States.

SHUSTER: In the 1970s, Israel had good relations with the Shah of Iran's government. The U.S. viewed both nations as twin pillars of American support in the Middle East. Even after the Islamic Revolution, the hostile rhetoric of Iran's Ayatollahs disguised a far more pragmatic policy. During the Iran-Iraq war, Israel was the conduit for substantial deliveries of American Arms to Iran as a quid pro quo for the release of American hostages in Lebanon.

Many Iranians today do not believe Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel campaign will benefit his presidency, among them Mohammad Atrienfur(ph), editor of the moderate daily newspaper Shahr.

Mr. MUHAMMAD ATRIENFUR (Editor, Shahr): (Through translator) Here is the difference between him and Hitler, that actually he has not gained any extra power.

SHUSTER: As recently as 2003, the previous administration of President Khatami sent word to the U.S. that it was prepared to recognize Israel in the context of a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East. Mohammad Ali Abtahi was Iran's vice president at that time.

Mr. MOHAMMAD ALI ABTAHI (Former Vice President, Iran): (Through translator) For Iranians, among the ordinary Iranians, the Palestinian issue is not a priority like it is among the Arab countries. Maybe Mr. Ahmadinejad is very popular among Arab leaders and Arab young people, but actually, I think this is not the right decision to be popular among the Arab countries.

SHUSTER: And some like Abtahi predict an eventual backlash against Ahmadinejad as more and more Iranians may come to see the president's anti-Israel rhetoric as a cover for his inability to deliver many of the populous promises he made during his presidential campaign.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Tehran.

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