"Iran's stance has always been clear on this ugly phenomenon [i.e., Israel]. We have repeatedly said that this cancerous tumor of a state should be removed from the region."
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (©2005 Allan Tannenbaum/Polaris Images)
No, those are not the words of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking last week. Rather, that was Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Republic of Iran's supreme leader, in December 2000.
In other words, Ahmadinejad's call for the destruction of Israel was nothing new but conforms to a well-established pattern of regime rhetoric and ambition. "Death to Israel!" has been a rallying cry for the past quarter-century. Mr. Ahmadinejad quoted Ayatollah Khomeini, its founder, in his call on October 26 for genocidal war against Jews: "The regime occupying Jerusalem must be eliminated from the pages of history," Khomeini said decades ago. Mr. Ahmadinejad lauded this hideous goal as "very wise."
In December 2001, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president and still powerful political figure, laid the groundwork for an exchange of nuclear weapons with Israel: "If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce minor damages in the Muslim world."
In like spirit, a Shahab-3 ballistic missile (capable of reaching Israel) paraded in Tehran last month bore the slogan "Israel Should Be Wiped Off the Map."
The threats by Messrs. Khamenei and Rafsanjani prompted yawns but Mr. Ahmadinejad's statement roused an uproar.
The U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan, expressed "dismay," the U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned it, and the European Union condemned it "in the strongest terms." Prime Minister Martin of Canada deemed it "beyond the pale," Prime Minister Blair of Britain expressed "revulsion," and the French foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, announced that "for France, the right for Israel to exist should not be contested." Le Monde called the speech a "cause for serious alarm," Die Welt dubbed it "verbal terrorism," and a London Sun headline proclaimed Ahmadinejad the "most evil man in the world."
The governments of Turkey, Russia, and China, among others, expressly condemned the statement. Maryam Rajavi of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a leading opposition group, demanded that the European Union rid the region of the "hydra of terrorism and fundamentalism" in Tehran. Even the Palestinian Authority's Saeb Erekat spoke against Mr. Ahmadinejad: "Palestinians recognize the right of the state of Israel to exist, and I reject his comments." The Cairene daily Al-Ahram dismissed his statement as "fanatical" and spelling disaster for Arabs.
Iranians were surprised and suspicious. Why, some asked, did the mere reiteration of long-standing policy prompt an avalanche of outraged foreign reactions?
In a constructive spirit, I offer them four reasons. First, Mr. Ahmadinejad's virulent character gives the threats against Israel added credibility. Second, he in subsequent days defiantly repeated and elaborated on his threats. Third, he added an aggressive coda to the usual formulation, warning Muslims who recognize Israel that they "will burn in the fire of the Islamic umma [nation]."
This directly targets the Palestinians and several Arab states, but especially neighboring Pakistan. Just a month before Mr. Ahmadinejad spoke, the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, stated that "Israel rightly desires security." He envisioned the opening of embassies in Israel by Muslim countries like Pakistan as a "signal for peace." Mr. Ahmadinejad perhaps indicated an intent to confront Pakistan over relations with Israel.
Finally, Israelis estimate that the Iranians could, within six months, have the means to build an atomic bomb. Mr. Ahmadinejad implicitly confirmed this rapid timetable when he warned that after just "a short period … the process of the elimination of the Zionist regime will be smooth and simple." The imminence of a nuclear-armed Iran transforms "Death to Israel" from an empty slogan into the potential premise for a nuclear assault on the Jewish state, perhaps relying on Mr. Rafsanjani's genocidal thinking.
Ironically, Mr. Ahmadinejad's candor has had positive effects, reminding the world of his regime's unremitting bellicosity, its rank anti-Semitism, and its dangerous arsenal. As Tony Blair noted, Mr. Ahmadinejad's threats raise the question, "When are you going to do something about this?" And Mr. Blair later warned Tehran with some menace against its becoming a "threat to our world security." His alarm needs to translate into action, and urgently so.
We are on notice. Will we act in time?
Nov. 1, 2005 update: For more on this subject, see "Another Reason for Alarm at Ahmadinejad's Threat."