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JERUSALEM (AFP) – Exiled Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf has urged Israel not to attack arch-rival Iran over its nuclear program, in a visit to the Jewish state to promote his new film.

“I love you, but please do not attack Iran. It is not the solution, it would only aggravate the situation,” the well-known director said at a news conference to promote his latest film, The Gardener, at the annual Jerusalem film festival.

Forced into exile following death threats, Makhmalbaf backs a “cultural” dialogue between arch-rivals Iran and Israel which both ban citizens from travelling to each other’s country.

He said it is pointless to threaten to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, which Israeli officials do regularly.

Israel, believed to be the sole albeit undeclared nuclear weapons power in the Middle East, has not ruled out military strikes targeting Iran’s atomic sites to stop its controversial nuclear program.

Israel and much of the West suspects Tehran wants to make atomic weapons, a charge it strongly denies.

“It’s better to help the Iranian democratic forces,” Makhmalbaf said, insisting that an aggressive approach would fail.

“After more than 60 years, you (Israelis) still have not found a solution with the Palestinians because politicians on both sides are immature, they did not comprehend that the root of the conflict lies in the culture and religion.”

Makhmalbaf’s fictional docu-drama is shot in northern Israel’s Haifa in the famous gardens of the Bahai World Centre, a pilgrimage site for the Bahai community which is persecuted in Iran.

The Bahai religion was founded in Iran in the 19th century and is anathema to the Islamic clerical regime.

The film revolves around a native gardener and other members of the Bahai community and also focuses on a dialogue between a father and his son.

“I am not religious, but it’s impossible to dismiss the religious factor… and just look at the problems with a secular vision,” he said.

“I chose Bahai as it has a tolerant and non-violent approach that can be an example to other established religions.”

Born in Tehran 56 years ago, the maker of 20 films took part in the demonstrations against the shah of Iran which saw him arrested at the age of 17 and spending more than four years in prison.

After the 1979 Islamic revolution he was able to concentrate on cinema, but his approach and attempts to prevent censorship angered the new authorities.

Makhmalbaf was forced into exile in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, where he remained underground, before moving to Paris for four years. He now lives in London.

“On many occasions the Iranian authorities sent killers after me. I narrowly escaped a grenade attack in Afghanistan. In Paris I lived 24 hours with 24 bodyguards,” he said.

All of his films and 30 books are banned in Iran, but his movies do find their way in through black market DVDs, satellite television or YouTube.

“After my visit to Israel, I’ll probably face a campaign accusing me of being a Mossad or CIA agent,” he said of the Israeli and US intelligence services.

Makhmalbaf, who supported reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi in the disputed 2009 Iranian presidential election which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected, called last month’s election of moderate cleric Hassan Rowhani “very limited progress”.

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