ASHINGTON — W Over the years, Americans have come to discount statements on Israel and Zionism by Irans President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Repetition has rendered them unremarkable.
By MICHAEL GERSON
The Washington Post
Israel must be wiped off the map. Zionism is a germ of corruption that will be wiped off the face of the earth. It is a cancer cell that must be removed from the body. Israel is destined for destruction and will soon disappear.
One is tempted to add: blah, blah, blah. It is easy to dismiss this rhetoric as being designed for domestic consumption. And soon after Irans June election, Ahmadinejad will be out of a job historys single most persuasive argument in favor of term limits.
But the problem is this: Ahmadinejads language is not exceptional within the Iranian regime.
Irans supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also referred to Israel as a cancerous tumor. In recent weeks, Khamenei has promised, if the Iranian nuclear program is attacked, to level down Tel Aviv and Haifa.
Senior Iranian military leaders, presidential advisers and religious authorities can be quoted endlessly in a similar vein.
Such arguments are deeply embedded in the Iranian regime as a statement of mission, an organizing principle. This wont be changed by a single election.
It is possible to overplay such rhetoric. The Iranian government is not simply an irrational, apocalyptic cult. It may eventually respond to sanctions. It is sometimes necessary for America to engage in diplomacy with very nasty people.
But it is possible to underplay this language as well. It is not merely hate speech. It has the hallmarks of incitement to genocide: the dehumanization of a targeted group and the use of code words to cover genocidal intent.
One theoretical question: Is such Iranian rhetoric a crime under the Genocide Convention of 1948 to which Iran is a signatory which forbids the direct and public incitement to commit genocide? The language of Iranian leaders is certainly direct and public. When forced to defend themselves, they often claim (unpersuasively) that their target is Zionists rather than Jews. But in the determination of genocidal intent, this doesnt matter. Genocide can be directed against any group racial, ethnic, religious or national.
Yet the (rather thin) case law on incitement to genocide also requires an imminent threat of violence. In the Iranian case, the threat comes from government action providing long-range missiles to Hamas or (down the road) the use of nuclear weapons.
A prosecution of Iranian officials for incitement to genocide is an exceedingly theoretical prospect.
But Iranian incitement should not be glossed over. It is not common, culturally excusable or normal among nations. How many other states do we know, asks Michael Abramowitz, director of the Center for Genocide Prevention at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, that talk about other human beings in the way the Iranian leadership speaks of Israelis and Jews? They are conditioning generations of young people in their own country and the broader Middle East to think of Jews as subhuman, which makes acts of terror by groups like Hamas and Hezbollah seem more thinkable.
Several years ago, during an Iranian military parade, a Shahab-3 missile was decorated with the banner: Israel must be uprooted and wiped from (the pages of) history. This cant be reasonably construed as a vivid political metaphor. It is the depiction of a twisted ideal, broadly shared within the Iranian regime. And it is one reason that President Barack Obama is right to draw his red line. Such a banner must never hang on an Iranian nuclear weapon.
To reach Michael Gerson, send email to email@example.com.