updated 4/9/2005 12:52:51 PM ET 2005-04-09T16:52:51

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami strongly denied shaking hands and chatting with Israeli President Moshe Katsav at Pope John Paul II’s funeral, state-run media reported Saturday.

Following the pope’s funeral on Friday, Katsav said he shook hands and chatted briefly with Khatami and the leader of another archenemy of Israel, Bashar Assad of Syria. Syria on Friday confirmed the handshake between Assad and Katsav but played down its political significance.

But after returning to Iran, Khatami denied shaking Katsav’s hand.

“These allegations are false like other allegations made by Israeli media and I have not had any meeting with any one from the Zionist regime,” the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Khatami as saying.

No diplomatic breakthrough
Khatami was cited as saying his country “morally and logically” does not recognize Israel but will not interfere in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, meanwhile, said he doubted the handshake could represent a diplomatic breakthrough.

“I hope that it can be a new beginning, certainly. But frankly I doubt it,” Shalom said in an interview with Italian daily La Stampa published Saturday. “Khatami and Assad are two extremists. It could only have happened thanks to the truly magnetic personality of John Paul II.”

Israeli media reported Friday that during the Pope’s funeral ceremony, Khatami talked briefly with Katzav. Some suggested the exchange was a small breakthrough between the leaders of two nations that have had no relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran toppled the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The Iranian-born Katsav said he and Khatami conversed about Yazd, the region in central Iran where both men were born.

“The two of us were born in the same region in Iran, two years apart,” Katsav was quoted as saying.

“The president of Iran extended his hand to me, I shook it and told him in Farsi, ’May peace be upon you.”’

Bitter enemies
Iran and Israel have been bitter enemies for years — Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called Israel a “cancerous tumor” that must be wiped from the world map.

Iran is accused of supporting Lebanon’s Shiite Muslim militant group, Hezbollah, which fought Israeli soldiers until they withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. Hezbollah continues to launch occasional attacks against Israeli troops in a disputed parcel of land on the southern Lebanese border.

Iran also hosts militant Palestinian groups, including Hamas, and President Bush recently accused Iran of being the “the world’s primary state sponsor of terror.”

Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, has repeatedly said the destruction of Israel is the only way to solve the problems of the Middle East. But Iran’s reformers, including Khatami, avoid using such language.

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