Give Mahmoud Ahmadinejad credit for consistency. Since taking office in August of 2005, and despite the long odds, Iran’s firebrand president has made the obliteration of the State of Israel a major governmental priority.
Last August, at a conference in Tehran on the topic of a “World without Zionism,” Ahmadinejad caused an international furor when he declared that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” Such a goal, the Iranian president told his audience, was not far-fetched. Rather, Ahmadinejad reassured listeners, it “can be achieved and can definitely be realized.”
Fast forward nearly a year-and-a-half, and this radical objective has not receded from view. On December 11, amid an international outcry, the Iranian government kicked off a major two-day Holocaust-denial conference in Tehran. The event, dubbed “The Holocaust, Global Vision,” was a virtual who’s-who of racists and anti-Semites, from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to various discredited “scholars” of Nazi atrocities during World War II.
Given the subject matter and the guest list, it would be tempting to dismiss this gathering as a mostly harmless attention-getting stunt. But the event, like Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial itself, is significant. It has a clear strategic goal: to change the terms of the political debate over Israel in the Middle East.
Tehran’s logic is compelling. While Arab states still may gripe about it, today Israel’s place in the region is not in serious doubt. The outcome of three regional wars in the three decades after Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 — and major Israeli investments in a “qualitative” military edge, and in strategic partnership with the United States since then — have made sure of that. Of course, regional radicals such as Hamas and al Qaeda continue to refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist. As a practical matter, however, countries in the region are drifting — albeit very slowly — toward political detente with the Jewish state.
But Ahmadinejad clearly hopes that debunking the Holocaust can change all that. By discrediting the formative historical event that laid the groundwork for Israel’s establishment, Iran’s president is attempting to remove the rationale for its presence in the region — and by doing so, nudge Israel’s hostile neighbors into action. Indeed, as Ahmadinejad told conference attendees on December 12, “[t]he Zionist regime will disappear soon, the same way the Soviet Union disappeared” and “humanity will achieve freedom.”
Politicians in Israel are taking notice. “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany, racing to arm itself with atomic bombs,” former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of Israel’s most influential politicians, warned an audience in Los Angeles last month. “Believe him and stop him,” Netanyahu said. “This is what we must do. Everything pales before it.”
More and more, Netanyahu’s dire assessment is being echoed within the official Israeli establishment. “I am aware of all of the possible repercussions of a pre-emptive Israeli military action against Iran and consider it a last resort,” Deputy Israeli Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh recently told reporters. “But the last resort is sometimes the only resort.”
All of which is to say that, when coupled with his regime’s very evident nuclear ambitions, Ahmadinejad’s notions of a “world without Zionism” have the very real potential of precipitating a regional conflagration — which, after all, appears to be precisely what the Iranian president has in mind.
– Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council and the author of Tehran Rising: Iran’s Challenge to the United States.