JERUSALEM – Israeli President Shimon Peres sent a rare greeting to the people of Iran on Friday, praising what he called a great and ancient culture and saying they would be better off without their hard-line leadership.
The greeting coincided with a video message sent by President Obama to Iran in which he said the U.S. is prepared to end years of strained relations if Tehran tones down its bellicose rhetoric.
Peres took a tougher tone in his taped audio message, harshly criticizing Iran's hard-line leadership that came to power in the 1979 Islamic revolution and predicting that Iranians would eventually overthrow them.
"I think the Iranian nation will topple these leaders — leaders that do not serve the people. In the end, people will understand this," Peres said.
Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, talked of the warm ties that once existed between the two countries under the pro-U.S. shah, who was overthrown in 1979, and voiced hope that they could once again live in piece.
"I turn to the noble Iranian nation in the name of the ancient Jewish nation and wish that it return to its rightful place among developed nations," he said, criticizing the "religious fanatics" who lead Iran.
"It's such a rich country with such a rich culture," he said. "On the one hand I look at Iran with admiration because of its history and on the other hand with sorrow because of what's happened to it."
Peres' message marking the Persian Nowruz holiday was broadcast on the Farsi-language service of the Voice of Israel radio station. The station claims to have several million listeners in Iran, though it was not immediately clear how many people had heard the message.
Israel and Iran enjoyed close ties before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled the U.S.-backed shah and brought to power a clerical leadership hostile to the Jewish state.
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel and questioned whether the Holocaust occurred. Israel also accuses Iran of supporting hostile Arab militant groups, including Hamas and Hezbollah, and says Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Speaking to an interviewer, Peres took aim at Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial. "Since when is he an expert on the Jewish Holocaust? Was he at Auschwitz? What does he know? All day he makes speeches and speeches, but they are destroying the nation. They won't so quickly destroy us."
Peres then turned his focus to the Iranian people and offered a Nowruz blessing.
"Our relations with the Iranian nation knew days of prosperity, even in modern times as we shared with you our experience in agriculture, industry, development of science and medicine and we developed with you the best relations possible," he said.
"To our dismay, our diplomatic relations are at a low point flowing from the desires leading the current leaders of your land to act in every way possible against the state of Israel and its people, but I am confident that the day we are hoping for is not far, when the good neighborly relations and the cooperation will flourish in all fields for the welfare of our nations and for the betterment of our common future."
Peres spoke in Hebrew for most of the blessing, but then ended his address with a traditional Persian holiday greeting: "May your Nowruz be a victory, and every day be Nowruz!"
Meir Javedanfar, an independent Iranian-born analyst living in Israel, called Peres' statements "very significant."
He said both Peres and Obama were aware that Iran is preparing to hold a presidential election and are hopeful that they can encourage voters to choose a new moderate leadership.
"Iranian right-wingers thrive on demonizing the U.S. and Israel," he said. "This is basically to counter that, with the hope that the people of Iran will vote against extremism."
He said Peres also might be trying to encourage the people of Iran to embrace Obama's diplomatic overture. "We should try not to allow the provocative messages of Ahmadinejad to destroy the rapprochement," he said.
Farnoush Ram, a broadcaster at the Israeli radio station, said Peres' predecessor, Iranian-born Moshe Katsav, had also sent Nowruz messages to Iran in the past, but this was the first blessing since Ahmadinejad took office.