TEHRAN, Iran – Pro-democracy reformers denounced Iran's hard-line president Sunday for calling for Israel's annihilation, saying it harmed the country's international standing.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (search) said Wednesday that Israel is a "disgraceful blot" that should be "wiped off the map," prompting international condemnation and an Israeli demand that Iran be expelled from the United Nations.
On Sunday, Ahmadinejad said his comments represented Iran's long-standing policy toward the Jewish state enunciated by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (search), who led the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic News Agency, or IRNA, said.
"These words are the same ones that the late Imam [Khomeini] said," Ahmadinejad said, explaining that he only added one sentence about "the powers of arrogance," seen as a reference to the United States.
Iran does not recognize the existence of Israel and Khomeini had repeatedly called for its destruction.
But former reformist president Mohammad Khatami (search) criticized Ahmadinejad, saying "those words have created hundreds of political and economic problems for us in the world," IRNA said.
It was the first time in a quarter century that there was a clear-cut rift over a major policy position drawn up by Khomeini.
"Ahmadinejad's remarks harmed Iran. It was irresponsible and illogical," said Rajabali Mazrouei (search), a prominent reformer and former deputy. "We can't be more extremist than Palestinians themselves."
Morad Veisi (search), a leading political analyst, said it was the first time that an Iranian head of state was openly calling for the destruction of Israel.
"Khomeini was a spiritual leader, not head of government. Ahmadinejad apparently is not even familiar with the world of politics," he said.
Extremists, however, were motivated by Ahmadinejad's remarks. About 300 men and women turned up Sunday at the offices of the Headquarters for Commemorating Martyrs of the Global Islamic Movement (search) to volunteer for suicide bomb attacks against Israel.
A spokesman for the group said it had signed up more than 45,000 volunteers to undergo training for suicide attacks since it began recruiting in June 2004.
"More than 1000 of them have already been trained. Many of them don't need training since they are already members of the elite Revolutionary Guards (search) and paramilitary Basij forces," Mohammad Ali Samadi said.
Several senior officials, including presidential adviser Mojtaba Rahmandoust and Parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, were at the gathering.
"The Iranian nation wants this regime removed from the world map," Rahmandoust told the gathering held at a building owned by the semiofficial Martyr Foundation.
In London, Britain said Iran poses a challenge to the international community, citing the call to wipe out Israel and charging Tehran was involved in the Iraqi insurgency and had nuclear weapons ambitions.
"Iran has to change its behavior in terms of support for terrorism, in deceit over nuclear weapons and in terms of its relationship and threats to other members of the international community," British Defense Secretary John Reid (search) told the British Broadcasting Corporation on Sunday.
Reid said Iran appeared to be trying to confront the international community, which is considering how to respond.
Reid said he did not have conclusive proof that the Iranian government was involved in providing weapons to insurgents in Iraq. But he said there was evidence of the involvement of Iranian elements in the Iraqi insurgency.