Why did Iran’s leader support Jews in speech and bash Israel?

Statements come amid recent ceremony commemorating Jews that fell in battle during Iran-Iraq War

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / HO / KHAMENEI.IR)
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO / HO / KHAMENEI.IR)
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei slammed Israel in a speech to an Islamic “Unity Conference” in Tehran. Speaking on Friday he said Iran’s regime supports the Palestinians but is not antisemitic or anti-Jewish. He also tweeted the comments.
Khamenei has made similar comments in the past. “We are in favor of Palestine and its independence ad salvation, but the elimination of Israel does not mean the elimination of the Jewish people.” He said Jews live safely in Iran. He supported the “elimination of the fake Zionist regime.” Oddly, his comments when translated to English by Press TV, noted that the “Palestinian people, be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish” were owners of the land, apparently meaning the land of Israel. By defining Palestinians as an inclusive term including Jews the Iranian leader added a layer of confusion to his comments. His comments in Farsi appeared to include the same definition of Palestinians.
The Khamenei twitter account included the same messaging. He has contrasted the regime’s view of Israel with that of Arab nationalists and others. In previous tweets he has argued that Arab states sought to “throw the Jews in the sea,” and that this was not Iran’s policy. He said the same thing in June and in 2018. He tweets the same thing in French, Farsi and in Arabic. A review of his tweets reveals that the message from Tehran is clear on this point. He accuses the US of being the main problem in the Middle East, and hopes to see Israel destroyed, but the Jewish people apparently preserved without Israel.
What was the point of this speech today? On the one hand Iran is experiencing challenges with corruption scandals and also a new price hike for gas. People are protesting. The leader wants to show that he can focus attention on the Palestinian cause. This is a way to distract from the problems at home. But his speech wasn’t even covered in a major way by Fars News, an indication that it didn’t get as much play as he would have liked at home.
Is the messaging about tolerance for Jews only for foreigners? It does not appear to be so. Khamenei’s comments are in contrast to Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohammed who has bashed Jews at Islamic forums and more recently when he was invited to speak at Oxford, Cambridge and Columbia. He says antisemitism is free speech and has said in the past that Jews control the world. Yet he gets the red carpet in the West.
The Ayatollah might be trying to contrast this hypocrisy whereby openly antisemitic leaders are invited by speak in western forums while the Iranian regime is seen as less palatable. His attempt to contrast Tehran’s views with the views of Gamal Abdel Nasser and various historic stances of Arab states, is a way to contrast Iran with the Arab world. This is a bit difficult to fully accept because Iran is a key ally of the Houthis in Yemen whose official slogan is “curse the Jews, death to Israel.” It is also in contrast to the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s open Holocaust denial and the regime hosting a Holocaust cartoon contest to mock Jewish suffering.
Khamenei’s speech is a reminder that when it comes to the Iranian regime nothing is a monolith and that it has clear messaging regarding Israel. It’s view is that Israel and the US are involved in some kind of conspiracy to control the Middle East, spread division, take over land, and even support extremists. Iran is the “axis of resistance,” and it is fighting this “arrogance.” The US and Israel are behind protests in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere, in this worldview. The IRGC argues that Israel will be destroyed within decades and that the destruction of Israel is not longer just a “dream.” An official in parliament predicts a war with Israel will result in Israel’s destruction in just thirty minutes. The foreign ministry however has wished Jews a happy new year.
The ostensible tolerance the regime shows to Jews could be just propaganda. It’s not clear how it manifests itself at home. However, in October the IRGC participated in a memorial for Jews who fought in the Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq war. The combination of messaging to foreign and local audiences appears to show that those like Khamenei believe their own rhetoric.