Iran's highest authority lashed out against Israel on Friday with some of his harshest comments in recent memory about the Jewish state.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is Iran's top political and military figure, said his country's hostility to Israel extended beyond the government to the Israeli people as well. In saying so, he was brushing aside recent overtures by top Iranian officials to the Israeli public.
Khamenei said Iran and Israel were on a "collision course," a statement that could further increase tensions in a Middle East already fearful of a conflict between the two countries.
"Who are Israelis?" Khamenei told thousands of worshipers gathered for Friday prayers in downtown Tehran. "They are responsible for usurping houses, territory, farmlands and businesses. They are combatants at the disposal of Zionist operatives. A Muslim nation cannot remain indifferent vis-a-vis such people who are stooges at the service of the arch-foes of the Muslim world."
Iran and Israel are locked in a war of words. Israel accuses Iran of seeking nuclear weapons under the guise of a peaceful energy program and supporting anti-Israeli militant groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Iran's leaders have repeatedly denied the legitimacy of the Jewish state, which they consider a Western colonial outpost.
The comments came amid a controversy in Iran over remarks attributed to an Iranian official close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a vice president in charge of tourism, was quoted in a July interview as saying that Iranians were friends with the Israeli people, despite the conflict between the governments.
"Today, Iran is friends with the American and Israeli people," he said, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. "No nation in the world is our enemy."
Hard-liners close to the government pounced on Mashaei's remarks. But Thursday night Ahmadinejad appeared to back up Mashaei, voicing sympathy for the Israeli people, even as he predicted Israel's demise.
"The Iranian nation never recognized Israel and will never ever recognize it," he said at a news conference. "But we feel pity for those who have been deceived or smuggled into Israel to be oppressed citizens in Israel."
Ahmadinejad is scheduled to arrive in New York within days for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, which probably will take up the issue of Iran's nuclear program.
Khamenei left little doubt about Iran's position on relations with Israel, saying he was raising the issue "to spell an end to any debates" on it.
"It is incorrect, irrational, pointless and nonsense to say that we are friends of Israeli people," said Khamenei, who delivers prayer sermons only on special occasions.
Iranian officials typically increase anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian rhetoric in the week before the last Friday in the holy month of Ramadan, which is called Jerusalem Day in Iran. This year, it falls on Sept. 26.
Khamenei said Iran has no problem with Judaism or other religions. "But we are on a collision course with the occupiers of Palestine and the occupiers are the Zionist regime," he said. "This is the position of our regime, our revolution and our people."
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Daragahi from Beirut.