Shortly after the immediate and strong international reaction to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comment that Israel should be “wiped off the map,” his foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, indicated that this position was nothing new: The Islamic regime had always viewed Israel that way, ever since the Khomeini revolution in 1979.
Mottaki is correct. From the very beginning, Khomeni and his crowd have spent much effort trying to delegitimize Zionism and the Jewish state. Yet there was something different about Ahmadinejad’s statement last week, and we need to focus in on that in order to understand the reactions and to assess what to do about it.
The fundamental difference lies in the fact that earlier Iranian anti-Israel propaganda fell into the category of rhetoric — dangerous because such hatred poisons minds and sets the stage for destructive behavior, but nonetheless only rhetoric. Ideally, such rhetoric needed to be dealt with early on, but the reluctance to do so stemmed from a variety of reasons, most of all because of a lack of a sense of urgency.
What means did Iran have to destroy Israel? The fact that through the years Iran was a major state sponsor of terrorism, in particular of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, was not deemed sufficient by Western nations and the United Nations to take Iranian threats too seriously. And, of course, it wasn’t irrelevant that Iran had large oil supplies.
Ahmadinejad’s statement, however, sends out very different messages. One can’t ignore the fact that the language used is not merely one of delegitimizing the State of Israel. At a time when it is believed that Iran will be able to produce deliverable nuclear weapons sometime in the next two to four years, a threat of the kind that came from the Iranian president is no longer mere rhetoric.
I am one who is always hesitant to make comparisons of today’s evils in the world to that of Adolf Hitler. But now is an appropriate time to do so. Hitler made clear in “Mein Kampf” his goals of German world domination and the demise of the Jews. The world should have paid attention, but who was Hitler?
By 1939, with Nazi Germany a military power of the first order, Hitler warned that if war would come it would result in “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Hitler’s threats were no longer seen as idle. Unfortunately, the world awakened very late to the threat of war and too late to protect European Jewry.
The strong reaction to the Ahmadinejad statement — which reflects a recognition that Iran’s threats can be backed up — could be a turning point in international dealings with Tehran, but only if concerted action follows. What is needed now is a full-scale campaign to highlight the danger that the fundamentalist Islamic regime poses not only to Israel, but to the world. In doing so, major and ongoing efforts must be made to persuade Russia and China to allow the implementation of U.N. sanctions against Iran.
Declarations by the international community that Iran cannot be allowed to possess nuclear weapons must be made credible by action. Pressure must be brought to bear on Iran in every way possible in order to convince Tehran to give up on its nuclear program — and if all else fails, a military response must remain an option.
The Iranian president’s bluntness may have inadvertently provided an important wake-up call to the world. The question is, will Western civilization respond in time?
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is author of “Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism” (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).