TEHRAN, Iran – Iran’s ultraconservative president – spurning international outrage over his remarks about Israel – joined more than a million demonstrators who flooded the streets of the capital and other major cities Friday to back his call for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood fast behind his assertion that Israel should be wiped off the map and repeated the call during the nationwide protests Friday, the Muslim day of prayer.
But in an apparent attempt to blunt international outrage over Ahmadinejad’s comments, the Iranian Embassy in Moscow issued a statement saying the Iranian leader did not want to “engage in a conflict.”
Marching alongside the protesters, the 47-year-old former mayor of Tehran and one-time Republican Guard commander renewed his criticism of the West.
“They become upset when they hear any voice of truth-seeking. They think they are the absolute rulers of the world,” he said during the al-Quds – or Jerusalem – Day protest, which was among the largest since they were first held in 1979 after Shiite Muslim clerics took power in Iran.
His fellow marchers carried placards reading “Death to Israel, death to America.” It is not uncommon for an Iranian president to join marches in the capital. Ahmadinejad was accompanied by five bodyguards, but otherwise security was not out of the ordinary for such an event.
Despite Ahmadinejad’s continued harsh attacks on the West, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani tried to dial back the rhetoric, suggesting that Israelis and Palestinians hold a referendum to decide the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
“If Muslims and Palestinians agree (to a referendum), it will be a retreat but let’s still hold a referendum,” Rafsanjani said in a prayer sermon.
The Iranian Embassy statement in Moscow said Ahmadinejad “did not have any intention to speak in sharp terms and engage in a conflict.”
But that was not the message carried by the at least 200,000 Iranians who massed in Tehran to unleash virulent condemnation against Israel, the United States and the West in general, accusing them of oppressing Palestinians and Iran.