Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
In repeatedly claiming that Iranian leaders wish to destroy Israel and kill the Jewish people, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is spreading Iranophobia and helping to impose the most crippling economic sanctions in history on Iran. Netanyahu is belligerent in his claims: in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, October 1, Netanyahu mentioned Iran seventy times and “Rouhani”—not Mr. or President Rouhani—twenty-five times. He has also threatened that if necessary, Israel will attack Iran on its own, and claimed that Iran wants to “wipe Israel off the map.” He does not recognize Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear technology and energy—a right that Iran has as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—and has also claimed that Iran “is preparing for another Holocaust.”
How truthful are these claims? In the past, it is true Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei has spoken of destroying Israel, and Article 110 of the Islamic Republic of Iran stipulates that the Supreme Leader sets the general policies of the country. In practice, this means he decides whether to negotiate with the United States, and sets Iran’s policy vis-à-vis Israel. But there are major differences between the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Khamenei eras, and Khamenei’s thinking on Israel has changed over time. (The recent diplomatic initiative by President Rouhani, indeed, would not be possible if Khamenei had not given him “full authority.”)
With the end to the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, and the revolution in communications over the past two decades, respect for human rights and democracy has become so universal that even dictators can no longer ignore them. In fact, Khamenei claims that Islam respects human rights more than the West, and that "religious democracy" is superior to "liberal democracy." Khamenei now speaks about destruction of Israel in terms of the human rights of the Palestinians, which represents a paradigm shift from the revolutionary slogans of Khomeini’s Iran after 1979. Does destroying Israel, for Khamenei, mean killing Jews in Israel? Or eliminating a country called Israel and replacing it with one called Palestine without massacre of the Jewish people? The only way to understand his position is through his speeches and writing.
Since being elected Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has made it clear he wants Israel, as a country, to disappear. But he has never spoken about the destruction of Israel’s government by Iran or even by the Islamic countries’ armed forces; that claim by Netanyahu is sheer lie.
On December 4, 1990, Khamenei spoke about a collective agreement by Islamic scholars regarding an Islamic defense against the Israeli occupation of Palestine:
Regarding the Palestine issue, the problem is taking back Palestine, which means disappearance of Israel. There is no difference between occupied territories before and after [the Arab-Israeli war of] 1967. Every inch of Palestinian land is an inch of Palestinians’ home. Any entity ruling Palestine is illegitimate unless it is Islamic and by Palestinians. Our position is what our late Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] said, “Israel must disappear.” The Jews of Palestine can live there, if they accept the Islamic government there. We are not against Jews. The issue is the illegal ownership of Muslims’ homes. Muslim leaders, if they were not influenced by the world powers, could solve this important problem, but unfortunately have not been able to.
On August 19, 1991, Khamenei reiterated his support for a new, Palestinian government:
Solving the Palestinian problem entails destroying and eliminating the illegitimate government there, so that the true owners [of the land] can form a new government; Muslims, Christians, and Jews can live side by side. . . Our view regarding the Palestine issue is clear. We believe the solution is destroying the Israeli regime. Forty years has passed [since establishment of the state of Israel], and if another forty years passes, Israel must disappear, and will.
A few days later, in a meeting with the leaders of the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad and the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Ayatollahagain pointed to Israel as the source of the Palestinians’ plight: “The United States cannot solve the Palestinian problem to its own liking. The issue is like a bone choking them and, God willing, with Israel’s disappearance will be solved.”
In March of 1994, after Israeli forces attacked a mosque in Hebron killing or injuring a number of Palestinians in a Friday prayer sermon, Khamenei said, “This gross violation of human rights [of the Palestinians] must be condemned, but the United States and others support this cancerous tumor [Israel] in the heart of Islamic nations.” Likewise on July 20, 1994, in a speech to a group of visitors, Khamenei repeated that “this cancerous tumor” has always advanced its goals and plans with aggression, occupation, and terror, and added that Israel has always been “a terrorist government.”
In a Friday prayer sermon on February 5, 1995, Khamenei pointed out that while the Western powers regard Iran’s defense of the Palestinians’ anti-occupation struggle as “supporting terrorism,” the Palestinians ask,
Why did you [Western powers] create the usurper Israel, the nationless Zionists, and the illegitimate Israeli government, and impose them on Palestine and Lebanon? What does this have to do with Iran? If some people want to defend their land, is it terrorism that Iran has exported?
In the opening speech to an international conference in support of the Palestinians’ Intifada on April 22, 2001, Khamenei told the group to “rest assured that if even a portion of the Islamic world’s resources is devoted to this path [Intifada], we will witness the decay and eventual disappearance of the Zionist regime.” In another speech on January 31, 2002, Khamenei said that the survival of “the cancerous Zionist tumor” has always been due to the support of the great powers, particularly, the United States. “They built Israel to use it against Islamic nations,” he added.
More recently, in his Friday prayer sermon on February 3, 2012, the Supreme Leader addressed past and future Iranian involvement in anti-Israel activities, saying:
We have intervened in the anti-Israel struggle, and the results have been the victories in the 33 days war [the 2006 war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon] and the 22 days war [Israel’s attacks on the Gaza strip in December 2008]. From now on we will also support any nation, any group that confronts the Zionist regime, we will help them, and we are not shy about doing so. Israel will go, it must not survive, and it will not.
And, in a meeting on June 4, 2013, with the members of the Assembly of Experts, the constitutional body that elects and monitors the performance of the Supreme Leader, Khamenei spoke about Ayatollah Khomeini’s steadfastness: “our magnanimous Imam is the person who never changed his mind about the Zionist regime; that ‘the Zionist regime is a cancerous tumor that must be removed’ are the Imam’s words.”
Khamenei has never spoken about the destruction of Israel’s government by Iran or even by the Islamic countries.
So Khamenei wants Israel to be destroyed. But he is not an anti-Semite. He has never spoken about destroying Jews or Judaism. Although he considers Islam to be the true religion, he also recognizes “true Judaism” and “true Christianity” as Abrahamic and therefore right religions. For example, in a speech to government officials on July 10, 2000, Khamenei emphasized that Iranian Jews exist, and have the same rights as every other citizen:
Fortunately, we have [the] co-existence of various religions in our own country. The Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians live side by side with Muslims. They work with us and live with us, and play their role [as citizens in the nation]. Of course, they have [patriotic] duties, just as the Islamic government also has duties toward them as our citizens that it must carry out, and does. We have no complaints about our religious minorities.
Khamenei reiterated the point this year in a speech to ambassadors of the Islamic countries in Iran on June 7, 2013, defending Iranians against claims of anti-Semitism by Israelis, who always consider the struggle against the occupation to be anti-Semitic.
In Islamic countries Jews, like the adherents of other religions—Christians and Muslims—live side by side with them. In our country we have Jews, Christians, Muslims, and adherents of other religions, and they all live in a secure environment provided by the Islamic government. We are not talking about anti-Semitism. We are talking about the aggressive, usurper, and cruel Zionists, which they misrepresent as anti-Semitism, whereas today the Westerners themselves are afflicted with anti-Islam and anti-Muslim disease. Observe the Western world in which they provoke anti-Muslim waves and support them; they support those who insult Islam and the great Prophet of Islam. This is being anti-Islam.
Ciamak Morsadegh, the Iranian Jewish member of the parliament who accompanied President Rouhani to New York, corroborates Khamenei’s claims about Iranian Jews. He told The Washington Post, “We [Jewish Iranians] are not tenants in this country [Iran]. We are Iranians, and we have been for 30 centuries.” There are sixty active synagogues spread across Iran, including a dozen in Tehran alone, and sermons and religious courses regularly draw large participation.
It is because of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land that Khamenei rejects a diplomatic relationship between Iran and Israel. In his Friday prayer sermon on June 20, 2008, Khamenei said that friendship with the “people of Israel is irrational and wrong,” because they have taken other people’s homes. He said,
No, we have no problems with Jews. We have no problems with Christians, and with adherents of other religions in the world. The usurper is just the Zionist regime. This is the position of our state, and that of our revolution and our people. This position is different from other countries in which the people may also not live in usurped lands [but are not against Israel]. The Israeli settlements are occupied by the people who are said to be the people of Israel. They have been armed by the illegitimate government of Israel against Muslim people, so that the Palestinians would not dare approach the settlements.
In 2013, the pattern remains unchanged. Israel has always threatened Iran with preemptive military strikes. Khamenei has always responded that if Israel attacks Iran, Iran will defend itself by delivering a firm response. Though Khamenei has spoken about defending itself in the aftermath of an attack by Israel, he has never threatened a preemptive strike.
On March 21, 2013, at the height of Israel’s threats against Iran, Khamenei said, “The officials of the Zionist regime threaten us constantly. But, I believe that they know well, and [even] if they do not, they should, that if they take any wrong action [against Iran], the Islamic Republic will destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa.” In his latest speech on the issue on October 5, 2013, the Supreme Leader said, “We hear the disgusting threats against Iran again. Our response to any evil act against the Iranian nation will be tough and serious. Those who are used to threatening the Iranian nation must become aware of this.”
There are two main schools of thought among American critics of U.S.-Israel relations. Noam Chomsky, on the one hand, believes that the United States supports Israel for its own national and strategic interests. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, on the other hand, give more weight to the Israel lobby in the United States. Khamenei’s view of the relations between the two nations is much closer to the latter. In his speech of October 5, 2013, to graduates of the Military College of Tehran, Khamenei spoke about the issue:
A government that is under tight control of an international Zionist network must, for the sake of the illegitimate demands and interests of the network, accommodate the fake, usurper occupying regime of Palestine, have a flexible policy toward it, and then call this “America’s national interests,” whereas the true national interests of the United States are completely the opposite of what the United States does in support of that regime. The United States extracts extortion from the rest of the world, and then passes them on to the Zionist regime. We are seeing such facts today.
Thus, the fundamental question for the region, and for understanding Iran’s relationship with Israel, is where the four million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem belong, not to mention millions of other Palestinians scattered throughout the Arab world. Are they Israel’s citizens, or does Israel expect them to disappear?
Forty-six years after the 1967 war, most Palestinians are still not citizens of Israel: they cannot vote, do not have passports, and often lack homeowners’ rights. They do not enjoy humane lives where they live, and they lack mobility. They live in what Jimmy Carter referred to as an apartheid state.
The border situation is similarly complicated. Israel was created in 1947 by Resolution 181 of the United Nations General Assembly. But while Israel was born by the resolution, over the last several decades it has violated the resolution itself, which devoted forty-five percent of the land to the Palestinians, fifty-four percent to Israel, and designated the remaining one percent—Jerusalem—as international territory. Since the war in June of 1967, the Palestinians’ share of the land has shrunk to twenty-two percent. Resolution 465 of the United Nations Security Council twice mentions the territories occupied by Israeli forces and asks Israel to evacuate them. It also declares the settlements in the occupied territories, including in East Jerusalem, a violation of Fourth Geneva Convention that deals with the protection of civilian populations during war. The British Foreign Office has even declared the violation of the convention to be a war crime. Israel has also violated the Oslo agreement by refusing to relinquish control of occupied territories, with nearly 600,000 Israeli citizens living in the settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In fact, the Israeli government refuses to declare its national borders, whether they are the 1948 borders, or the 1967 one, or any modification thereof.
In refusing the two-state solution, Israel asserts there can be only one government in the region. But a government represents a country with a population and borders, and in Khamenei’s view, Israel lacks both. He said explicitly in his Friday prayer sermon on December 31, 2008, that the entire historical Palestine belongs to the Palestinians, and the he wants the elimination of Israel’s government and the formation of a Palestinian government. Khamenei’s rationale is based on opposition to occupation and oppression.
He says that while in his youth he was fascinated by Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell—both supporters of Israel—the Zionists were deceptive in claiming that Israel is “a land without a people for a people without a land.” In his critique of Sartre, Khamenei writes that Palestinians belonged to all of that land (not just the West Bank and Gaza), and quotes Western historians: “Wheat farms looked like a green sea in the entire historical Palestine. What does a land without a people mean? They try to make the world believe that Palestine was a ruined land, and they [the Jews] took over and developed it. This is a lie to the public.”
Many Westerners and Iranians consider Khamenei’s solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict utopian.
In his Friday prayer sermon of February 18, 1994, Khamenei declared that by sending Jews from Russia, Britain, the United States, Africa, Asia, etc. to Palestine, they [the Zionists] occupied the land, cracked down violently on the indigenous people, and formed the state of Israel. Then, he asked whether the struggle against occupation, oppression by the occupiers, and defense of the national rights was not just. Changing the name of the land from Palestine to Israel was also not just. Peace will prevail, he said, when the Palestinians’ homes are returned to them, adding,
Palestine belongs to the Palestinians. If the Palestinians in Palestine—in all of Palestine—form a government, peace will prevail. If you [Israel’s supporters] are truthful [about wanting peace], and if you have not conspired against the Palestinian nation, Islamic nations, and Islam, that is the solution.
In a message to the Congress of Mecca Pilgrimages on April 17, 1991, Khamenei again spoke vaguely about his solution for the Palestinian problem and said, “The Islamic Republic’s solution is to disband the usurping Zionist regime, forming a government of the Palestinians, and [guaranteeing] peaceful co-existence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in all of Palestine.”
What he said became clear almost a decade later. In a speech to the Basij militia on October 21, 2000, Khamenei said,
To those who consider the problems in the Middle East critical problems for the world and declare that we should do our utmost to control them, I say that the only way to overcome the crisis and solve the problems is to uproot their root cause. What is the crisis’ root cause? The Zionist regime in the region. So long as the root cause of the problems exists, so also does the crisis itself. The solution is for the millions of the Palestinians to return to Palestine, the several millions that live away from home to return to Palestine. The indigenous people of Palestine—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—should hold a referendum to decide what kind of a regime they want. The vast majority are Muslims. There are also Jews and Christians that belong there, as their parents also lived there. They can decide the political system that they favor. Then, that state would decide what to do with the people that have moved there over the last forty to fifty years. Keep them there, return them to their original country, keep them in a special part, whatever decision the new Palestinian government makes should be respected. This is the solution to the crisis. So long as it is not implemented, no other solution will be effective.
In another Friday prayer sermon on March 5, 2012, Khamenei repeated the same:
Holding a referendum in Palestine among the Palestinians, and all those that became refugees—if, of course, they want to return to Palestine—is a rational solution [to the problem]. Those [Palestinians], who live in Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, and elsewhere, can return home. I am not advocating forcible return of anybody. Then, [Palestinians should] hold a referendum among these who were living there before 1948, when the illegitimate state of Israel was formed, whether Muslim, or Jew or Christian, which will then decide the type of government that must be formed there. This is democracy. Why is democracy good for others, but not for the Palestinians? Why it is that all the people of the world can decide their own fate, but not the Palestinians? There is no doubt that the present regime [Israel] took over through deception, trickery, and force. Thus, the people there have an imposed regime. Fine! Let the people of Palestine hold a referendum to choose the type of the government that they want for themselves. That regime and that government should form and then decide what to do with the people who moved there after 1948. Whatever decision it made, that would also be the fruit of people’s vote, as well as democracy, respect for human rights, and in line with the world’s present rationale. This is a good solution that must be implemented.
Khamenei then proposed that if Israel and the Western world do not accept this solution, the Islamic countries should stop exporting their oil to the countries that recognize Israel for only one month—more than long enough to persuade the West to accept the solution. Two months later, on the thirteenth anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death on June 4, 2002, Khamenei again spoke about his solution as the only workable solution:
The only solution for the Palestine problem is that the true Palestinians, not the usurping and occupying immigrants, those who live in Palestine and those who became refugees, decide the type of government that they want. If asking for the vote of the people of a nation is a solution for those who claim to be democracy advocates, [then] Palestine is also a nation and must decide [its fate]. The usurping regime that rules there now has no rights. It is a fictitious regime built and propped up by the oppressing powers. Thus, no one should ask the Palestinians to recognize this government. If any country in the Islamic world recognizes this regime, in addition to bringing dishonor to itself, it has committed a futile act, because this regime will not last. The Zionists think that they control Palestine, and it is theirs forever. No, that is not so. Palestine’s fate is to become a nation someday. The Palestinian people have risen, and it is the duty of all the Islamic countries and Muslims to help the Palestine nation to materialize.
After Israel withdrew from Gaza, Khamenei emphasized again in a Friday prayer sermon on August 19, 2005, that the peace process is useless, and that during its entire existence Israel has never relinquished one inch of territory without force. But, he said, the resistance of Hezbollah and the Lebanese people forced Israel to leave southern Lebanon (in 2000), and the resistance of the Palestinians forced Israel to evacuate Gaza. He declared that the Palestinian problem will not be solved by evacuating a small portion of land:
The Palestinian problem has only one solution, and that is what we proposed several years ago. Hold a referendum among the indigenous Palestinians, those who live there, or are in refugee camps, or live elsewhere, regardless of whether they are Muslim, Christian, or Jew, and ask them to decide the government that they want. Regardless of whether that government is run by the Muslims, Jews, or Christians, as long as it is the result of people’s direct votes, is acceptable, and will solve the problem. Without it [the referendum] the problem will never be solved.
Many—both Westerners and Iranians—consider Khamenei’s solution utopian. In March 2009, Khamenei responded to this charge by citing the dissolution of the Soviet Union: it was formed through the occupation of many countries, and no one believed those nations would be liberated again. The same is true of Palestine, he argues, and Israel will have the same fate as the Soviet Union.
Many experts point out that Israel’s military might, along with that of the United States, will make Khamenei’s solution impossible. But Khamenei rejects this and has stated repeatedly that resistance against Israel is the only solution that will yield results. Negotiating with Israel, he says, will bring only contempt and hardship for the Palestinians. The so-called Palestinian Authority, formed in 1994, only works to serve Israel.
In a speech to a conference in Tehran in support of the Palestinian Intifada, Khamenei rejected the accusations that Iran wants to kill the Jewish people or wants Islamic countries engaged in military fighting with Israel. On September 30, 2011, he spoke about the referendum again:
The proposal of the Islamic Republic of Iran to solve the Palestinian problem and healing this old wound is rational, clear, and in accordance with the accepted norms of public opinion worldwide, which we have already described in detail. We neither advocate a classic war between Israel and the Islamic countries, nor throwing the Jewish people into the sea, and neither do we accept mediation by the United Nations or any other international organization. We propose a referendum among the Palestinian people. Similar to any other nation, the Palestinians also have the right to decide their fate and pick the type of government they want.
Khamenei correctly points out that Israel will never accept this proposal, but also believes that “organized resistance” by the Palestinians against the occupiers, which has been recognized by international laws and covenants, is the only way of arriving at the referendum.
The last major occasion on which Khamenei spoke about his proposal was during the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Tehran in 2012:
We have proposed a just and democratic solution [for the problem]. All the Palestinians—the current residents, as well as those who had to flee [in 1948] but have preserved their Palestinian identity—whether Jew, Muslim, or Christian, must take part in a well-monitored and trustworthy referendum, and choose the political structure of the country. All the Palestinians that have suffered for years as refugees must return home and take part in the referendum, and then in drafting a constitution and holding elections. It is only then that peace will prevail.
There are several important lessons to draw from Khamenei’s position.
By speaking about destroying Israel, Khamenei has severely hurt Iran and Iranians. Netanyahu and his allies have misconstrued Khamenei’s position as the destruction of Israel by Iran, and accused Iran of breeding a new Holocaust. Using Israel’s powerful lobby in the United States, they have provoked the world’s opinion against Iran and succeeded in having the most crippling sanctions imposed on Iran. They do not even recognize Iran’s right to peaceful use of nuclear technology and energy. Khamenei has always said that idealism and pragmatism must somehow be made compatible. But the fact is that his anti-Israel rhetoric has hurt Iran’s national interests. That he has proposed détente—as part of his recent calls for “heroic flexibility”—suggests he recognizes the damage himself.
Ayatollah Khamenei has not acted prudently. If his goal is a referendum for Palestinians, why does he not confine his public remarks to only this proposal? Speaking about destroying Israel will not find any international sympathetic ear, but speaking about holding a referendum is interesting and not provocative. He could, and still can, say that his solution is the same as what happened in South Africa. Just as a referendum there transferred political power from the minority to the majority, so one can envision the same happening in Palestine.
By speaking about destroying Israel, Khamenei has severely hurt Iran and Iranians.
Although Khamenei thinks otherwise, his proposal really is utopian. How can he expect his proposal to find acceptance when Israel denounces a two-state solution—a proposal supported by the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations—and rejects returning to the 1967 borders? At the same time, his rhetoric has made Iran a most important worldwide problem, at the expense of the Palestinian problem.
If Khamenei is truly concerned about Palestinians, he must not talk about destroying Israel and “the Holocaust myth.” Together with former presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khamenei has actually served Israel’s interests. His statements about the Holocaust and destroying Israel are false and inhumane, and have been taken advantage of by the Israelis, so much so that the Palestinian problem has almost been forgotten. A more respectable strategy would be for Khamenei to defend the two-state solution, be on the side of the Middle East Quartet, and isolate Netanyahu as a target of criticism. Many American and European experts have said repeatedly that Netanyahu does not care about Iran’s nuclear program; he is interested only in preserving Israel’s hegemony in the Middle East and in marginalizing the Palestinian problem.
On the other hand, the Rouhani administration has deeply angered the Israelis. Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif neither deny the Holocaust nor speak about destroying Israel. Zarif said explicitly that the Holocaust is a crime against humanity, a heinous crime, and genocide. Their diplomatic language has isolated Netanyahu in his attempt to spread Iranophobia. Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote that Netanyahu lost the game this year [at the UN], so much so that even some of his Jewish allies in the United States, including David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, questioned his approach. Without Iran as a scapegoat, Israel cannot make the world forget about the Palestinians.
Speaking about human rights is everyone’s duty, and is not considered intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. Netanyahu has the right to speak about violations of human rights of Iranians and condemn them, but he should not lie about Iran. For example, he claimed that if the Iranian people were free, they would wear jeans and listen to Western music, whereas in reality Iranian people do both freely. Netanyahu also falsely likens a nation that has not invaded any other country for 275 years to Nazi Germany (see, for example, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Likewise, Iranian leaders have the same rights and can criticize the apartheid system in the West Bank that Jimmy Carter and former commander of Central Command General James Mattis have both already addressed.
Contrary to Netanyahu’s claims, Iran is not targeting the people of Israel, but rather supports Palestinians. Likewise, the relations between Iran and the Palestinians must strictly be about Palestinian human rights and rights violations by Israelis. Iranians cannot be more Palestinian than the Palestinians themselves; if the Palestinians negotiate with Israel, Iran cannot speak against it. The news that most of the Hezbollah forces are leaving Syria suggests that the reestablishment of relations between Iran and the United States will positively affect the entire region. There is no reason that Iran and Israel cannot have diplomatic relations similar to the cooperation between Turkey and Israel. Even Hamas and Hezbollah negotiate with Israel indirectly. Why can’t Iran and Israel do the same?
Image: Ben Piven
Akbar Ganji is one of Iran’s leading political dissidents and has received over a dozen human rights awards for his efforts. Imprisoned in Iran until 2006, he is author of one book in English, The Road to Democracy in Iran, which lays out a strategy for a nonviolent transition to democracy in Iran.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.