Iran's leadership seems to tone down aggressive rhetoric against Israel

Iran's leadership seems to tone down aggressive rhetoric against Israel
The establishment in Iran seemed to step back from its aggressive rhetoric against Israel, distancing itself from the military actions of its regional proxies.
4 min read
21 December, 2023
An Iran Police Special Forces member shouts anti-Israel and anti-US slogans while walking under a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a rally for the anniversary of the US embassy occupation, 4 November 2023. [Getty]

After weeks of aggressive rhetoric from Iranian officials, warning of new fronts against Israel if the land aggression in Gaza and civilian killings persisted, the country's Supreme Leader, prominent conservative politicians and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders stepped back their threats against Israel.


Political analysts asserted that Iran's shift in rhetoric coincided with Tehran's recognition that Israel would not stop the land attacks on Gaza, along with the killing of civilians in the enclave.

In strong contrast to the establishment's anti-Israel political and ideological stances, the latest remarks from high-ranking officials demonstrated that the regime in Iran has no appetite for expanding the confrontation with Israel through its proxy forces or being responsible for missile attacks by its proxies in Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon.

In his latest remarks, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters in the country, has lowered his usual aggressive tone against Israel, merely stating that Hamas defeated Israel in the 7 October attack.

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On 22 November, Khamenei said: "Hamas, not as a government or a country with many [military] capabilities, but as a resistance group knocked out the usurping Zionist regime which has vast facilities."

A day later, in a Hebrew post on the social media platform X, he wrote: "These bombings will not compensate for the heavy loss of the Zionist regime on 7 October. It will shorten the life of the usurping regime, and this cruelty will not go unanswered."

In neither of his recent remarks did he use the rhetoric of "demolishing Israel" or "destroying Zionism," which was omnipresent in his statements before the current war in Gaza. Some of his earlier remarks, such as "Israel must be demolished" and "eradicating the usurping Zionist government is of interest to all nations in the region," have been prominently displayed on city walls in large murals in Iran.

This rhetoric echoes a longstanding sentiment that goes beyond the current leader. Anti-Israel sentiments are not confined to Khamenei, and animosity against Israel was one of the foundational pillars upon which the Islamic Republic of Iran was established after the 1979 revolution.

In 2015, after Iran reached an agreement with world powers regarding its nuclear program, Khamenei addressed his supporters, predicting that Israel would not exist in 25 years. He explicitly stated that Iranian-backed forces would be the ones to dismantle Tehran's arch-enemy.

This anti-Israel stance has deep roots in Iranian political philosophy, with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's first supreme leader, being a key figure in promoting such rhetoric. His most famous quote, "Israel is a cancerous tumour in the region which must be removed from the face of the earth," still adorns propaganda banners in Iran, persisting 34 years after his death.

Before Israel's brutal attack on Gaza, top-ranking IRGC commanders responsible for providing funds, training, and military equipment to Hamas, Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and Hezbollah in Lebanon echoed the same sentiment.

On various occasions, they stressed that the IRGC would "erase Haifa and Tel Aviv from the map of the world" if their proxy forces in Palestine were attacked.

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However, since Israel initiated its land invasion of Gaza and the mass killing of civilians, top IRGC commanders changed their tone about the war in Palestine, avoiding any mention of a broader regional conflict or missile attacks on Israeli cities.

In a speech on 23 November, IRGC commander-in-chief Major General Hossein Salami said: "The usurper Zionist regime wanted to remain in that land [Palestine], having comfort, damaging the body of Islam and implementing American policies. However, Gaza showed that the Palestinians continue to resist and fight against this regime."

In a prior speech on 20 November, he also reiterated Iran's support for Palestine against Israel without talking about Iran's involvement in the war or the potential for new fronts against Israel.

"The Zionists are repeating their past mistakes, and they will collapse because of those mistakes. They'll lose to the resistance of Palestinians due to the mistakes they've made," he said

Meanwhile, prominent Iranian politicians have sought to explain Iran's restraint in keeping its word regarding the destruction of Israel.

One politician whose remarks garnered significant attention was Gholam Ali Hadad Adel, a member of the Expediency Discernment Council with close ties to Iran's Supreme Leader.

During an interview on Iran's state-run TV channel, Hadad Adel suggested that Israel aimed to involve Iran in the conflict in Gaza, citing this as the reason for Iran's decision to avoid entering the fight. In formulating this explanation, he even went so far as to argue that Iran's intervention would go against the interests of the Palestinians.

"Israel seeks to escalate this conflict into broader confrontations, such as a war between Iran and the US. If such a scenario unfolds, Israel would emerge as the survivor. The impact of Iran joining the war on the Palestinian cause is unclear," he stated.