During his visit to Tehran this week Philip Hammond suggested that Iranian calls for Israel's destruction were rhetoric intended for internal consumption, and that the current regime has adopted a more 'nuanced approach'. But if that is the case, why has Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei just published a 400 page book entitled 'Palestine' setting out his views on why and how Israel should be annihilated? For those of us who don't read Farsi, Khamenei tweeted a handy nine point summary of the strategy in English late last year.
When Iranians write 'Death to England' over a portrait of the Queen in the embassy, that's sloganizing. When they call for Israel's destruction, it is something else entirely.
Iran's pragmatic president and foreign minister may go light on the anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric, but the Supreme Leader, the powerful Revolutionary Guards, and many others in the regime do not. Hossein Sheikholeslam, the Iranian parliament speaker's adviser for international affairs went out of his way to dismiss Hammond's remarks on Tuesday, telling reporters:
"Our positions against the usurper Zionist regime have not changed at all; Israel should be annihilated."
These calls for Israel's destruction are not mere rhetoric, any more that Tehran's annual Al Qods day Israeli flag burning festival is just a good day out for all the family. The annihilation of Israel is deeply rooted in the Iranian revolutionary ideology.
That is not to say Iran's leaders think they can destroy Israel in a direct military confrontation. We should give them more credit. They seek to use proxies to trap Israel in an endless cycle of asymmetric conflict which harms both its security and international standing, and make any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians impossible.
Regional expert Ehud Yaari wrote in a recent essay for The American Interest:
"The Iranians' short-term vision thus has Israel squeezed by four fronts of moqawama (resistance): Lebanon, southern Syria, Gaza, and, most importantly, the West Bank ... paving the road to a long-term war of attrition masterminded by Tehran and backed by its missile arsenal, with or without nuclear warheads."
Or as Khamenei put it himself in a televised speech on August 17,
"We support anyone who fights against Israel, demolishes the Zionist regime, and advocates resistance."
The support for Hezbollah in south Lebanon and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip is long-standing and well known. The Iranian investment in arming these groups with ever more powerful rockets is enormous. Hezbollah's arsenal, deployed in villages in South Lebanon, is now estimated to be 100,000 missiles. Now Iran is exploiting chaos in Syria to open up a third front on the Golan Heights, and Khamenei speaks repeatedly about turning the West Bank into a fourth front.
Why do they do this? It reflects an ideological hatred of Israel rooted in the belief that the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East is an intolerable affront to Islam. But it also reflects Iranian regime interests to garner legitimacy across the Arab and wider Islamic world, and to prevent a rapprochement between Israel and Sunni Arab states which would diminish its own regional power.
The important point here is that Britain's differences with Iran are about far more than just Israel. Iran's leaders want to exploit sectarianism in Arab states, arm and fund radical extremist groups, and prevent peace between Israel and the Arabs to maximise its own power and influence. When it comes to ISIL, Iran is not a partner; indeed the sectarianism they promote contributes to pushing Sunnis into the arms of the extremists.
Iran's regional agenda therefore, as conceived of by its Supreme Leader, is against British interests. These differences about the fate of the region cannot be massaged away via a cordial chat with Foreign Minister Zarif. They are fundamental disagreements.
The British government understandably does not want to miss out on the race to sign lucrative deals as sanctions on Iran are lifted. But that should not diminish Britain's commitment to stand with other European powers, the US, and regional allies against Iran's regional policies. Sending that message is now more important than ever, as Iran stands to receive an enormous political and economic windfall from the nuclear agreement.
Whatever the arguments for or against engagement, Britain's dialogue with Iran should be based on a clear-sighted view of both the words and actions of the Iranian regime. In that context, UK leaders should be unequivocally condemning Iran's threats to its neighbours, not downplaying them.
The UK also stands a far better chance of reassuring Israel over the Iran deal, and of persuading Israel to take progressive steps on the peace process, if it recognises that for Israelis, Iranian calls for their state's annihilation are not nuanced, and not rhetoric.