Saudis Fuming Over Iran's Anti-Israel Remarks

Published December 09, 2005

| Associated Press

Saudis fumed Friday that Iran's hard-line president marred a summit dedicated to showing Islam's moderate face by calling for Israel to be moved to Europe, and the chief U.N. nuclear inspector said he was losing patience with the Tehran regime.

Even some of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's conservative allies in Iran were growing disillusioned, fearing he has hurt the country with his wild rhetoric. Iranian moderates also called on the ruling clerics to reel him in.

"The president has to choose his words carefully. He can convey his message to the world in better language tone," Hamid Reza Taraqi, a leader of a hard-line party, the Islamic Coalition Society, told The Associated Press.

The United States, Israel, Europe and Iranian ally Russia condemned Ahmadinejad over his remarks about Israel, made Thursday on the sidelines of the Mecca, Saudi Arabia, summit of more than 50 Islamic nations intending to show a Muslim front against terrorism.

Hours before the participants issued the summit's centerpiece — the Mecca Declaration, promising to stamp out extremist thought — Ahmadinejad spoke at a press conference, casting doubt on whether the Holocaust took place and suggesting Europe give land for a Jewish state if it felt guilty about it.

"Let's give some land to the Zionists in Europe or in Germany or Austria," he said. "They faced injustice in Europe, so why do the repercussions fall on the Palestinians?"

Privately, Saudi officials were furious Friday. Three senior Saudi officials who spoke to The Associated Press complained that the comments completely contradicted and diverted attention from the message of tolerance the summit was trying to project.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the kingdom's often stormy ties with Tehran.

Saudi newspapers ran excerpts of Ahmadinejad's news conference where he praised the summit — but dropped the references to Israel. The comments also did not appear in Iranian newspapers, though the state news agency reported them at the time.

One Saudi official, visibly angry, compared Ahmadinejad to Saddam Hussein and Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, whose renegade statements frequently infuriated other Arab leaders.

"The Iranian president seems to have lost his direction," said Gilan al-Ghamidi, a prominent commentator in Saudi media. "Iran should be logical if it wants to receive the support of the world. The president didn't score any points. He lost points."

The flap comes at a sensitive time for Iran. The United States accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons and is pressing to have it referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions over the program.

Iran and Europe have agreed to resume negotiations aimed at ensuring the program cannot develop nuclear weapons, though no date has been set. But Iran, which insists its program is for generating electricity, repeatedly has rejected a European compromise: to move Iran's uranium enrichment to Russia to ensure nothing is diverted toward weapons production.

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Friday the world was losing patience with Iran in the drawn-out negotiations.

"They are inching forward and I'm asking them to leap forward," said ElBaradei, who shares this year's Nobel Peace Prize with the agency.

He said he hopes outstanding nuclear issues with Iran will be clarified by the time he presents his next report in March because "the international community is losing patience with the nature of that program."

"The ball is in Iran's court. It is up to Iran to show the kind of transparency they need to show," ElBaradei told reporters in Oslo, Norway.

The flare-up further strains Ahmadinejad's ties with conservatives, who already have complained that he fails to work with them on domestic issues.

The parliament, which is dominated by supporters of Iran's hard-line clerical regime, has given the president an unprecedented slap already, rejecting three of his candidates for the key post of oil minister because he did not consult with lawmakers and the candidates were unqualified.

Conservatives also were angered in October when Ahmadinejad called Israel a "disgraceful blot" that should be "wiped off the map," raising a similar international outcry that isolated Tehran.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate say in all issues, backed Ahmadinejad over his calls for Israel's elimination. He has not commented on Thursday's remarks.

The ultraconservative Ahmadinejad emerged from the hard-line establishment, serving as a commander in the elite Revolutionary Guards.

But in some ways, he is an outsider among conservatives, emerging as a surprise victor in June elections in which most of the hard-line leadership backed another candidate.

He is not a cleric and campaigned on a platform of helping Iran's poor and a return to the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Since taking office, he has pushed hardcore rhetoric recalling the revolution's leader, Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and moved to purge moderates from government ministries.

Moderates were calling Friday for the ruling clerics to act.

"The ruling establishment should do something about this man," prominent analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand said. "Ahmadinejad speaks as if he is spokesman of a hard-line vigilante group. His words don't fit with those of a responsible president."

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