- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

Apprehension over hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election to the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran was justified by his call on Wednesday for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”

Running on a populist vote, Mr. Ahmadinejad, backed by Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, much to the detriment of the more experienced and more moderate former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, won the elections in a landslide victory last June.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Tehran’s regime presented “a clear and present danger,” and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres called on the international community to react and expel Iran from the United Nations.

Similar calls of distress over the Iranian president’s quasi-declaration of war on the Jewish state were echoed in numerous capitals around the world.

The British Foreign Office described Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comments as “deeply disturbing and sickening.” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy summoned Iran’s ambassador to the Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign ministry, demanding an explanation.

The White House reiterated Washington’s growing concerns over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, no doubt encouraging those calling for regime change in Tehran to up the ante. In Israel, similar concerns were echoed by Mr. Shalom who said, “Iran is trying to buy time … so it can develop a nuclear bomb.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comments were made at a conference in Tehran titled “The World without Zionism,” attended by some 3,000 students who chanted “Death to Israel” and “Death to America.” As the French say, “Plus a change, plus c’est la m?me chose.”

“As the Imam said, ‘Israel must be wiped off the map,’” said Mr. Ahmadinejad, referring to Iran’s late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Addressing students at the conference, Mr. Ahmadinejad said, “To those who doubt, to those who ask is it possible, or those who do not believe, I say accomplishment of a world without America and Israel is both possible and feasible.”

A veteran of the Revolutionary Guards, Mr. Ahmadinejad took office in August amid speculation he might have participated in the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979, and the taking of U.S. diplomats as hostages for 444 days. Former hostages have said they recognized Mr. Ahmadinejad as one of the student leaders who frequently came to the embassy to question the detained diplomats.

Analysts see Mr. Ahmadinejad’s outrageous statement as nothing new, really, but rather more of a return to rhetoric of the early days of the Iranian revolution when the ayatollahs openly called for the Muslim world to act against Israel, which it called “Little Satan,” and the United States, who was referred to as “Great Satan” — Shaitan Bazorg, in Farsi.

Khomeini first called for Israel’s eradication in 1979, shortly after coming to power.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s call to “wipe Israel off the map” raises the ante in Iran’s negotiation over its nuclear policy with the EU-3 — Britain, France and Germany — who all reacted strongly to the Iranian president’s statements.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s declaration will give fodder —and renewed hope — to opponents of the Tehran regime, many of who are urging the Bush administration to recognize the emerging threat posed by Iran’s theocratic leadership and to adopt a firm policy aimed at changing the current regime.

Iran, states the Iran Policy Committee, a U.S. lobby group pushing hard for regime change, sees the Islamic republic as posing six threats to American interests and ideals. The group points out the following:

• Iran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons.

• Iran’s continuing support for and involvement with terrorist networks, such as Palestinian Islamist groups and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which Iran supports financially and militarily.

• Iran’s publicly stated opposition to the Arab-Israel peace process.

• Iran’s disruptive role in Iraq.

• Iran’s expansionist radical ideology.

• Iran’s denial of basic human rights to its own population.

While some observers may see the Iranian president’s pugnacious statement as simple rhetoric, such declarations by a sitting head of state leaves room for concern in more than one way.

First it shows Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government is far from mature, representing a danger for a country wishing to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Second, it indicates the existence of severe rifts between Mr. Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

“Contrary to most predictions, the victory of Ahmadinejad, following the rout of reformists in February’s legislative elections, has not led to a ‘homogenization’ of power in the country,” said veteran Iranian journalist Safa Haeri from Paris.

“Ahmadinejad’s performance on Wednesday puts Iran firmly on the path of confrontation,” she writes.

“The danger of such a radical statesman is that by knotting religious beliefs with the nuclear issue, it makes for an explosive issue that will explode in the face of all Iranians,” Ms. Haeri writes, quoting an Iranian analyst in Asia Times Online. “Ahmadinejad’s statement would certainly strengthen the international consensus against Iran.”

Indeed, it goes without saying now that Iran will be perceived as a pariah state at the United Nations. Whether it will stop there remains in doubt.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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