DUBAI (Reuters) - Many thousands of Iranians shouted “Death to America, death to Israel” during state-organised protests on Friday and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told them there was no place for the Jewish state in a future Middle East.

Iran, penalised by tough Western sanctions, faces the threat of an Israeli or US military strike on its disputed nuclear facilities. With popular uprisings reshaping the region, the Islamic Republic is also trying to prevent the overthrow of its closest Arab ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “You want a new Middle East? We do too, but in the new Middle East ... there will be no trace of the American presence and the Zionists,” Ahmadinejad told worshippers at Tehran University in an event broadcast live on state television.

The Iranian leader, whose own authority is under challenge from hardliners as well as reformers, was restating Tehran’s familiar goals as the Middle East undergoes a very different upheaval from the 1979 Islamic revolution that toppled the US-backed Shah and brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. “Saving the existence of the Zionist regime (Israel) is a joint commitment by most arrogant Western governments,” Ahmadinejad said in a speech to mark the annual Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day decreed by Khomeini and held on the last Friday of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramazan.

He called for Muslim unity to foil Western support for Israel, which he described as a “cancerous tumor” for its occupation of Palestinian land.

But there was little unity on display at an Islamic summit in Mecca earlier this week when the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation suspended Syria despite Iran’s objections.

Speaking at the emergency summit, Ahmadinejad said Western powers could never be a role model for the Islamic world.

“Freedom and democracy will not come from the barrels of NATO guns and the interference of Western nations,” he said. “I think the enemies have been successful to a certain extent in creating regional conflicts,” Ahmadinejad acknowledged, without naming Syria.

Iran accuses the United States and its allies in the Middle East of backing Assad’s opponents to try to relieve pressure on Israel by destroying the “axis of resistance” between Tehran, Damascus and the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah movement.

The Iranian president further said that Israel is a “cancerous tumour” that will soon be finished off. “The Zionist regime and the Zionists are a cancerous tumour. Even if one cell of them is left in one inch of (Palestinian) land, in the future this story (of Israel’s existence) will repeat,” he said. “The nations of the region will soon finish off the usurper Zionists in the Palestinian land.... A new ME will definitely be formed. With the grace of God and help of the nations, in the new Middle East there will be no trace of the Americans and Zionists,” he said.