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By Julie Kliegman November 27, 2013

Iranian official called Israel 'rabid dog,' accused U.S. of war crimes, says Rubio

Forget the Senate’s "nuclear option." Congress’s latest point of tension is the nuclear deal with Iran.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is among those opposed to the six-month deal, in which the United States agreed to lessen sanctions on Iran in exchange for certain limits placed on Iran’s growing nuclear program. The deal was brokered by the P5+1, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany.

In his press release, Rubio highlighted a notoriously rocky relationship between the two countries, calling Iran a "rogue state." He went on to criticize the country’s leadership.

"Just days ago, Iran's Supreme Leader (Ali) Khamenei, who will oversee implementation of this agreement, was calling Israel a 'rabid dog' and accusing the United States of war crimes," he said.

We wanted to see if Rubio’s claim was right and what evidence it was based on.

Khamenei’s role

We didn’t hear back from Rubio’s office, but we found that Khamenei gave a speech on Nov. 20, prior to the public announcement of the agreement.

Khamenei is Iran’s appointed supreme leader and the country’s head of state. He holds more power in Iran than even President Hassan Rouhani, who is widely considered a moderate. Many analysts credit Rouhani’s election with making the recent agreement possible.

As we’ll see, Khamenei’s takes a more hard-line approach toward both the United States and Israel than Rouhani.

Khamenei is in charge of all of Iran’s foreign policy, including the nuclear agreement. But it’s worth noting that since he’s so high-ranking, he won’t be heavily involved in day-to-day operations -- that’s left to nuclear physicists and other lower-ranking officials.

"Rabid dog"

U.S. and Iranian news outlets reported that Khamenei said something about a "rabid dog" in a speech Nov. 20, less than a week before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced a deal with Iran.

We saw conflicting reports in the direct translation of the phrase from Farsi to English. It wasn’t immediately clear to us whether Khamenei directed the comment toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, all Israeli people or all Jewish people.

PolitiFact asked two Farsi-speaking Iranian political science experts for independent translations of the line in question. We showed the experts the Farsi speech transcript published on Khamenei’s official website. We also consulted an English-language video translation from Press TV, a state-owned news outlet in Iran.

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We found small discrepancies in the exact translation:

  • "Israel is the rabid dog of the region," was the wording Syracuse University Iranian studies professor Mehrzad Boroujerdi put forward, which closely matches many news reports we’ve seen.

  • "These Zionist financiers are really like wild beasts," was the wording Middle East Institute scholar Alex Vatanka gave us. He told us "wild beasts" and "rabid dogs" were not so far off from each other in Farsi. "Zionist financiers," he said, is a clear reference to the Israeli government, especially Netanyahu.

  • "Israeli officials cannot be called humans. They are like animals, some of them." That’s from the Press TV translator.

Exact wording aside, the sentiment is largely the same. Khamenei did in fact call either government officials or the country as a whole the animals of the Middle East.

That’s consistent with Khamenei’s overall stance, Vatanka said, adding that the leader previously referred to Israel as a "cancerous tumor" on the region. But Khamenei’s comments don’t necessarily reflect the way other Iranian officials or the public feels about Israel, Vatanka added.

"War crimes"

Rubio also said that Khamenei recently accused the United States of carrying out war crimes. When we watched the speech, we found truth to that.

"They committed crimes in Iraq, in Pakistan with drones. Still they are committing crimes with drones," he said, according to the Press TV translation. "In Afghanistan they bombard people and they continue to commit crimes. Anywhere in which they can serve their interests, they will commit crimes including torture, killings, the Guantanamo prison."

That’s not an unusual statement for Khamenei.

"The man’s position on the United States has always been that the United States is unjust in its policies, it’s arrogant in its policies and it’s not trustworthy," Vatanka said. But at the same time, Khamenei has always supported reaching out to the United States when he feels the timing is right, Vatanka added.

"(Iranian officials) would not have been sitting in Geneva negotiating with Kerry if they didn’t have the green light from Khamenei."

Our ruling

Rubio said, "Just days ago, Iran's Supreme Leader (Ali) Khamenei, who will oversee implementation of this agreement, was calling Israel a 'rabid dog' and accusing the United States of war crimes." Based on expert translations, we confirmed that Khamenei referred to either Israel or the Israeli government as the animals of the Middle East. In the same speech, he criticized the United States, saying they "continue to commit crimes" in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.

We rate Rubio’s statement True.

Our Sources

Al Jazeera America, "Israel should welcome Rouhani’s election victory," Oct. 2, 2013

Huffington Post, "Iran slams U.S.: Khamenei accuses military of supporting terrorism," June 25, 2011

Iranian Diplomacy, "France’s Fabius says West must stand firm in Iran nuclear talks," Nov. 22, 2013

Iranian Diplomacy, "Iran slams U.S. at conference on fighting terrorism," June 26, 2011, Ali Khamenei’s speech comments (in Farsi), Nov. 21, 2013

Marco Rubio, "Rubio comments on Iran nuclear deal," Nov. 23, 2013

New York Times, "New obstacle to a nuclear deal: taunts from Iran’s ruler," Nov. 22, 2013

Phone interview with Alex Vatanka, Middle East Institute scholar, Nov. 26, 2013

Phone interview with Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Syracuse University Iranian studies professor, Nov. 26, 2013

Press TV, "Iran leader Ayatollah Khamenei delivers speech on occasion of Basij Week, (Parts 1-6)" Nov. 20, 2013

Tampa Bay Times, "Sen. Nelson supports deal with Iran; Sen. Rubio bashes it," Nov. 24, 2013

Washington Post, "9 questions about Iran’s nuclear program you were too embarrassed to ask," Nov. 25, 2013

Washington Post, "Iran’s supreme leader publicly blesses the nuclear deal," Nov. 26, 2013

Washington Post, "Khamenei: Iran will back ‘any nations, any groups’ fighting Israel," Feb. 3, 2012

Washington Post, "What you need to know about Iran’s 1979 revolution," Feb. 11, 2010

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Iranian official called Israel 'rabid dog,' accused U.S. of war crimes, says Rubio

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