Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who was updated last week on the Iranian nuclear project, on Saturday called on Jews to pray for the destruction of Iran.

During his weekly sermon, the spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said his followers should pray for the annihilation of the enemies of the Jewish people during Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year), with an emphasis on Iran and Hezbollah.

“When we say ‘may our enemies be struck down’ on Rosh Hashana, it shall be directed at Iran, the evil ones who threaten Israel. God shall strike them down and kill them,” said Yosef.

Before his comment, senior defense officials, including National Security Council head Ya'akov Amidror and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, had visited the rabbi to persuade him to support a possible Israeli attack on Iran.

It is not known whether Amidror or any of the others succeeded in persuading Yosef. However, during a sermon delivered the previous week, a day after his meeting with Amidror, Yosef said: "You know what situation we're in, there are evil people, Iran, about to destroy us. ... We must pray before [the almighty] with all our heart."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet, which Israeli officials have said is divided over the question of launching a go-it-alone attack on Iran, includes a Shas minister as one of its eight members.

Iran claims to be enriching uranium for peaceful purposes only.

Yosef wields significant influence over Shas's lawmakers, who seek his guidance on policy.

In the past, the Baghdad-born Yosef has stirred controversy by likening Palestinians to snakes, calling for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to "perish from this world" and describing non-Jews as "born only to serve us".

But he has also spoken out in favour of Israel ceding occupied land for peace with the Palestinians in order to end conflict and save Jewish lives.