Iranian President defies worldwide criticism to repeat call for Israel to be 'wiped from map'

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The Independent Online

The populist firebrand sparked a crisis in Iran's foreign relations on Tuesday when he told a Tehran conference that Israel should be "wiped out" in a new wave of Palestinian attacks.

Yesterday, he was on the streets of the capital with demonstrators waving placards calling for the "death of America". He said: "My words are the Iranian nation's words. Westerners are free to comment but their reactions are invalid."

The diplomatic storm comes at a dangerous time for Iran, with the US pushing for Tehran to be taken to the UN Security Council over its nuclear programme.

"Ahmadinejad speaks for all Iranians. We are ready to die for Palestine," said Mohammed Mirzayi, 25, at the demonstration.

The UN Security Council yesterday condemned the original comments and said all UN members should refrain from threatening or using force against another country. But the condemnation, endorsed by all 15 council members, was delivered in the form of a press statement rather than at a formal council meeting, which would give it more weight. Algeria, the only Arab council member, objected to the meeting approach.

While an estimated one million joined anti-Israel protests around the country, many Iranians expressed dismay at the damage done to their country's image. "In today's world we ought to have relations with all other countries - even big powers," said Nahid, a 50-year-old teacher. "It isn't rational to isolate ourselves like we did in the past."

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has refused to recognise Israel and has even rejected some Palestinian talks for a peaceful solution. Its antipathy stems partly from the Shah's close relations with Israel before the revolution and partly from a desire to take a lead in Muslim world opinion. Yesterday's demonstration was an event held annually to mark "Jerusalem Day" but was this year larger than usual.

Many of those marching were members of the Basij Islamic militia, whose members are often taken by bus into cities for pro-regime demonstrations.

Mr Ahmadinejad won the presidency by appealing to poorer Iranians who liked his traditional image and promises to divide oil wealth among the poor. "I can't see any significant policy changes coming up," said a Tehran-based analyst who wished to remain anonymous. "The President was trying to appeal to his base supporters and didn't realise how his words would be understood abroad. It's a bit naïve. Now he cannot back down without looking foolish."

In London, Jack Straw held high-level diplomatic talks yesterday to isolate Iran after Tony Blair criticised the Iranian president, stirring up a hornets' nest among Labour MPs. Mr Blair's remarks caused alarm and anger among Labour backbenchers who fear Britain could become embroiled in US military action.

Senior British diplomats told The Independent last night that Mr Blair had not intended to threaten military action.