By Justin Cohen
Eric Pickles has criticised former cabinet colleague Philip Hammond for suggesting Iranian calls for Israel’s elimination amounted to “revolutionary sloganising”, as the Board of Deputies issued its strongest condemnation yet of the nuclear deal.
The comments came as Hammond returned from an historic visit to Tehran to reopen the British Embassy, four years after it was overrun by protesters against Western sanctions and a month after the signing of a nuclear deal to end those sanctions.
During an interview with Radio 4’s Today programme, Hammond said Iran was “too large a player” to leave in isolation but insisted “we must tread carefully” in dealings with the country. Tackling Tehran’s relations with the Jewish state, the foreign secretary said the current regime has a “more nuanced” approach than that of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
On Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s repeated calls for Israel’s elimination, Hammond said: “We’ve got to distinguish between revolutionary sloganising and what Iran actually does in the conduct of its foreign policy.”
Khamenei last month praised ‘death to Israel’ chants heard at rallies in the country.
But former Cabinet Minister Sir Eric Pickles, who now serves as Conservative Friends of Israel’s parliamentary officer, said: “It would be also sensible for the Foreign Secretary to persuade Ayatollah Khamenei to stop his repeat call for the destruction of Israel. Chanting ‘Death to Israel’ should never be dismissed as ‘revolutionary sloganising’ – it represents a deep threat to UK’s strongest ally in the Middle East.”
He added that Hammond was right to say we “should judge people by their actions as much by their words” and “what we’re looking for is behaviour from Iran towards Israel that slowly rebuilds their sense that Iran is not a threat to them”. Stopping transferring weapons and funds to terror groups and halting the promotion of violence against Israel would rebuild that sense, Pickles suggested.
Condemning the “flawed” nuclear deal, Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush said: “We are fearful that Western democracies will pay a very heavy price for their appeasement to a rogue dictatorship and will come to regret bitterly the enthusiasm to reach an accommodation with an utterly cruel and untrustworthy regime.”
During his visit, Hammond said it would be easier to address areas of disagreement like human rights in Iran once the two countries start uniting on issues like the battle against Islamic State.
While welcoming the focus placed on human rights issues by the foreign secretary, Arkush said the country’s record “continues to deteriorate even further to new lows in cruelty and barbarity,” including its treatment of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] and Bahai communities.
He added: “Iran also funds Hezbollah, which has perpetrated acts of terror around the world, including the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Argentina, which killed 85 people, and the bombing of a tourist bus in Bulgaria in 2012, which killed six. We urge Mr Hammond to keep up pressure over this appalling record and to continue to highlight the abuses of the regime.”
Sir Mick Davis, chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council, said: “For a long time, Iran has been a destabilising influence across the Middle East. With the ink barely dry on the recent nuclear deal, it cannot be ignored that Iran has shown no sign of changing its behaviour. Indeed, it is continuing its violent rhetoric unabated.”