Did you hear? It’s Khamenei’s Job to Set Israel on Fire

by Farideh Farhi

During my childhood days in pre-revolutionary Iran, I played the game Telephone often. It began with one kid whispering a phrase to the person beside them. Each child then whispered the same phrase until it reached the last person, who revealed a phrase invariably quite different from the original. We had good fun.

I thought about that game when I read Elliott Abrams’s piece about having Breakfast with the Supreme Leader. My curiosity naturally peaked at the thought of neoconservative extraordinaire Abrams having breakfast with Iran’s leader. Wouldn’t I want to be a fly on the wall for that conversation! But alas, no such event took place at all.

Abrams merely reported what Rafael Bardaji — former national security advisor to the Spanish Prime Minister — said at a joint meeting hosted by the Henry Jackson Society and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in London last week. According to Abrams, this is the story:

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, invited then-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to breakfast while he was visiting Iran.  The Spanish official party decided to begin by asking the ayatollah a friendly or neutral question rather than a hostile or critical one. The idea was to get the meeting off on a better footing, so they began with a question about the complex government and religious power structure in Iran. Given all the official civil and religious bodies and positions and their various responsibilities, they asked him to describe what exactly is his job.  ‘My job’, the Supreme Leader replied, ‘is to set Israel on fire.’

Wow! Abrams claims this happened in 2001, but it should have been 2000, since Aznar visited Iran in October of that year (well before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president of Iran) and yet, we hear about this rather nasty stuff now? Abrams assures us that there was previous reporting of this event “elsewhere”. But “elsewhere” was merely May of 2012 when Mr. Aznar spoke to journalists and diplomats at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and said this:

Israel to him [Khamenei] was a kind of historical cancer and anomaly, a country … condemned to disappear. At some point he said very clearly, though softly as he spoke, that an open confrontation against the US and Israel was inevitable, and that he was working for Iran to prevail in such a confrontation. It was his duty as the ultimate stalwart of the Islamic global revolution.

And this:

Khamenei said Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution sought to rid the world of two evils, the US and Israel, “and to preserve unhurt the virtues of the religious regime of the ayatollahs,” according to Aznar. The existence of Israel and the US seriously threatened to pervert the religious society the Supreme Leader envisioned for Iran, and that is something he could not allow to happen, Aznar continued.

There is nothing about setting Israel on fire in this Times of Israel piece, though it’s still pretty damning. One doesn’t need private reference to know that Khamenei likes to use the cancerous tumor analogy for Israel. In fact, a couple of months ago he repeated it during a public speech. But describing “his job” as committed to the destruction of Israel to a European leader is pretty out there and Abrams wants us to accordingly think through “the likelihood of arriving at a good negotiated solution with Iran, and the possibility of persuading and pressuring the Supreme Leader to abandon his nuclear weapons program,” while “keeping this rare encounter with him by a Western democratic leader very much in mind.”

Still, I remained curious as to whether Aznar had spoken of this encounter before. And indeed, in 2006, according to Haaretz, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Aznar five years ago that “setting Israel on fire” was the first order of business on the Iranian agenda.

Haaretz chose to pursue the veracity of this rather inflammatory comment with Aznar’s aides, who apparently refused to provide the exact quote, but mentioned that Aznar had written about his meeting with Khamenei in the past:

“He received me politely,” Aznar wrote, “and at the beginning of the meeting he explained to me why Iran must declare war on Israel and the United States until they are completely destroyed. I made only one request of him: that he tell me the time of the planned attack.”

I am unable to find the source from which this quote is taken, but there is no prior reference to Aznar’s meeting with Khamenei and anything that was said between them prior to 2006.

As I mentioned above, Aznar did go to Iran in October 2000, and apparently had a lovely time, saying in a joint press conference with then president Mohammad Khatami that “fruitful” negotiations “on objectives pursued by Tehran and Madrid” were held. He appreciated “the initiative of Dialogue among Civilizations put forward by President Khatami” and discussions on “political, economic, cultural and scientific areas.” He said that progress had been made in relations and that he hoped they “will become even better.”

Aznar apparently appreciated his two-day visit to Iran (including his sightseeing trip to beautiful Isfahan) so much that he forgot all about the stuff Khamenei had told him for a good 6 years. Perhaps Ahmadinejad’s infamous words about Israel, which went viral in 2005, jolted his memory!

But going back to Abrams’ reporting of Aznar’s words, it’s interesting that the former somehow manages to avoid mentioning that even in the Times of Israel article he refers to, when Aznar was reportedly pressed by the audience, Aznar somewhat changed his tune:

Pressed by members of the audience to specify whether Khameini explicitly called for Israel’s destruction, Aznar said the Iranian leader told him it was necessary to eliminate the threat that Israeli [sic] poses. “And that means obviously the elimination of Israel,” said Aznar. “If Israel is alive the threat survives. They’re trying to eliminate the threat. The elimination of the threat means Israel must be eliminated.”

So Khamenei told him that it was necessary to eliminate the threat that Israel poses. And this, in Aznar’s telling, must have meant eliminating Israel “since the elimination of threat means Israel must be eliminated.”

But wait, did Khamenei really use the word eliminate? Affirmative is the answer, Aznar noting “however that he spoke to the Iranian leader through an interpreter.”

And there you have it! After 12 years, a whisper that possibly began with a translation about the need to eliminate the Israeli threat, with the help of Aznar, his aides and advisors, and now Abrams, turns into “Khamenei said it is my job to set Israel on fire.”

Some people apparently never outgrow the game of Telephone.

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.