Iran official professes friendship to Israelis

TEHRAN Sun Jul 20, 2008 8:13pm IST

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TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran may be Israel's sworn enemy but a senior official said the Islamic Republic was nevertheless friendly to the Jewish state's people, a news agency reported.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has branded Israel a "stinking corpse" and predicts its imminent demise, but one of his deputies struck a more conciliatory note on Saturday.

Esfandiyar Rahim Masha'i, a vice-president in charge of tourism and cultural affairs, also reached out to people in the United States, Iran's other arch foe, in his speech.

"Today Iran is friendly with the peoples of America and Israel," he told a tourism fair in Tehran, the Fars News Agency reported.

Iranian officials often distinguish between the governments and peoples of the countries with which it differs, but such comments are rarely heard when it comes to Israel. Iran does not give visas to visitors if their passport has an Israeli stamp.

"No people in the world is our enemy and this is a source of pride," said Rahim-Masha'i. "We regard the people of America to be of highest ranking in the world."

His comments come at a time of tension between Iran and the West over its nuclear programme, sparking speculation of a military confrontation. Israel has vowed not to let Iran get an atomic bomb and has staged an air drill, raising speculation it was preparing for an attack.

The United States has also said it would not rule out strikes if diplomacy fails to end the row over Iran's nuclear ambitions. Iran says it only aims to generate electricity and has warned it will hit back hard if attacked by anyone.

Opposition to Israel is a fundamental principle in Shi'ite Muslim Iran, which backs Palestinian militants opposed to peace with the Jewish state.

A 2005 statement by Ahmadinejad saying that "Israel should be wiped off the map" outraged the international community.

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