In a rare conversation with an Israeli journalist, Mohammad Larijani, an Iranian politician and scientist whose brother Ali is his country's top nuclear envoy, said Friday that Iran was not bent on wiping Israel out and that his president had been misunderstood and misreported when purportedly expressing this genocidal ambition.
Larijani, the director of the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics in Teheran and a former deputy foreign minister and Majlis member, spoke to The Jerusalem Post both before and after a session of World Economic Forum on the Middle East, a gathering of regional and world leaders being hosted by Jordan at the Dead Sea this weekend.
He said Israel had "nothing to fear" from Teheran's nuclear program, and that President Mohammad Ahmadinejad had made plain that "Iran will not be the one" to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian situation. "Israel has more to fear from its own bad policies," he said.
Were Israel and the Palestinian to reach a viable settlement, he also said, Iran would support it. "When peace will come, Iran will be part of it," he said.
Asked whether that meant he could envisage a day when Iran would recognize Israel, Larijani said "this is a premature question," but that his previous response constituted an answer of sorts. "We are not going to decide for the Palestinians," he said.
Larijani also said Ahmadinejad had been misunderstood in his position on Israel, and that the president had spoken of "erasing the practices" followed by Israel against the Palestinians, rather than erasing the Jewish state. He did not explain how such purported mistranslations and misrepresentations could be reconciled with Ahmadinejad's repeated public de-legitimization of Israel, including in addresses delivered at forums with English titles such as "The World Without Zionism."
Despite the hosting of a recent Holocaust denial conference in Teheran, the Iranian official said Ahmadinejad's position on the Holocaust had been misunderstood, too, and that there was "no anti-Semitism in Iran." He said Iran had always treated Jews equitably and noted, incidentally, that several Israeli ministers hailed from Persia.
Although he spoke to the Post both before and after the formal WEF luncheon event, Larijani chose not to respond to a question posed to him during the session itself. The Post asked him whether he would state publicly that Iran would recognize Israel if a full peace treaty was achieved between Israel and the Palestinians.
He did, however, respond to a public plea from the Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat, who called out directly to him, across the crowded room, "Larijani, help us by talking about adding Palestine to the map, instead of canceling Israel from the map."
"We are not in a position to decide for the Palestinians," the Iranian official responded to Erekat. "We are here to support them." An agreement acceptable to the Palestinians, he indicated, would be acceptable to Iran.
In further public comments, Larijani elaborated that the notion that Iran wanted to erase Israel was "a byproduct of the Western media." What Iran was trying to convey, he said, was that "we can't tolerate any state in which such practices" were followed against the Palestinians. He said Israel was depriving the Palestinians of basic rights and that Israel's was "the worst system of governance," and was being compared by the UN to apartheid South Africa.
Larijani also vowed that Iran would never abandon its nuclear program. "Iran is a nuclear capable country," he said. "This is our reality. We did it ourselves. [But] we don't have a nuclear arsenal. We don't need a nuclear arsenal," he went on. "It is more a liability than an asset."
He argued that Iran's current nuclear capability was a boon to the region. If the Saudis wanted a reactor for energy purposes," he said lightly, no Western power would help. "But if you want, we can build it for you." This quip garnered hearty laughter from the audience, which was dominated by Middle Eastern representatives with a healthy representation from the rest of the international community.
He said Iran was committed to peaceful nuclear technologies, and that "We will never go for a weapon. We are going to expand our nuclear technology. It is an indigenous technology. This is an endless effort."
Erekat, in his comments at the session, said he was sure a two-state solution would be reached, although he warned that Israel would be demographically overwhelmed if he proved wrong.
He said the current in-fighting in Gaza represented "the darkest chapter in Palestinian history. As a Palestinian, I am ashamed."
He said the PA had failed "to impose one authority, one gun, one rule of law." But he also blamed Israel for "tying our hands."
The PA, under its head Mahmoud Abbas, wanted to negotiate with Israel and was already working with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. We want peace, void of violence," he said. "I hope Olmert will stand tall."
Speaking at the same session, Amr Moussa, Secretary-General of the Arab League, rejected Olmert's offer to meet without preconditions with Arab leaders. Indeed, in answer to a question from the Post, he called the Israeli overture a "gimmick."
He said the Arab world had made public its offer of peace, in the shape of the Saudi initiative, but saw "no Israel hand stretched out for peace" and "no policy, no suggestions" from the Israeli government.
He also laid all the blame for the Gaza violence at Israel's door, blaming the murderous in-fighting on Israel's policy of "encirclement" and "blockades."
American policy was leading to catastrophe in Iraq and Palestine, Moussa said. The US had "opened the gates of hell." Everybody would continue to lose "if Washington doesn't help by telling the Israelis to stop this nonsense of having no policies of peace."
The session, headlined "Peace, Stability and International Relations," did not feature an official Israeli speaker. Other speakers included two American academics and Republican Congressman Christopher Shays.
At Friday afternoon's formal opening of the entire conference, Jordan's King Abdullah II said the Saudi initiative represented "a historic opportunity" to achieve a just and lasting settlement" and that it needed to be realized "this year."
"The absence of peace," and the "suffocating situation" facing the Palestinians under occupation, he said, were prompting growing radicalization. "It won't be easy - but peace is attainable," he said. "Israelis and Palestinians from all walks of life tell us they want an end to violence."