TOPICS > Politics

World Leaders Condemn Iranian President

November 3, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Thousands of Iranian students shouted “Death to Israeli” as they marched in front of the long-shuttered U.S. embassy in Tehran yesterday. The protest is held every year around the anniversary of the 1979 seizure of the embassy by Islamic radicals and the rupture of diplomatic relations since.

But this year these chants calling for the end of Israel echoed around the world because they repeated the sentiments voiced last Wednesday by the new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Speaking at a conference in Tehran called the World Without Zionism, he said, “The occupying regime must be wiped off the map. We cannot compromise over the issue of Palestine.”

Iranian TV did not distribute those remarks worldwide but did broadcast these comments where Ahmadinejad appeared to encourage a Palestinian uprising that could wipe out the Jewish state.

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Translated): A new wave of Palestinian attacks would destroy the Jewish state. They are actively involved in their fights against the regime and I thank the great God for this.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The president’s comments sparked an international outcry. The United Nations Security Council held a closed emergency session where all 15 members condemned the remarks. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon linked the comments to recent unrest in the Middle East

ARIEL SHARON (Translated): The call of the president of Iran saying he wants to wipe out Israel from the map expresses what many in the region want but are afraid to say aloud. Their murderous intentions are expressed daily in terror attacks like the ones we saw in the past week.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sharon said the U.N. should expel Iran, arguing any country calling for the destruction of another should not be part of the international organization.

So far, though, no action has been taken to remove Iran’s representative from the United Nations. At a European Union summit outside London last week British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed his revulsion. Britain, France and Germany have been jointly negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program with few results so far.

TONY BLAIR: These sentiments are completely and totally unacceptable. I have never come across a situation of the president of a country saying they want to wipe out — not that they’ve got a problem with, or an issue with, but want to wipe out another country. This is unacceptable. And their attitude towards Israel, their attitude towards terrorism, their attitude on the nuclear weapons issue, it isn’t acceptable.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Since winning election in June, Ahmadinejad Tehran’s former mayor, has taken a harder line with the West than his reformist predecessor Mohammed Khatami. Shortly after taking office the new president appointed a hard-liner to take over ongoing talks with Europeans aimed at stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Those talks have been frozen since Iran restarted uranium processing at a key nuclear plant in August.

Tehran has insisted its nuclear program is only used to generate power for civilian use. Yesterday Ahmadinejad purged his government of other reformers. He fired 40 ambassadors and senior diplomats; many had supported warmer ties with the West.

MARGARET WARNER: What should the world make of the hot words and recent deeds of Iran’s new president?

To explore that we’re joined by two scholars who were born and raised in Iran: Shaul Bakhash is a history professor at George Mason University outside Washington. A former journalist in Iran, he left the country in 1980, the year after the revolution. And Abbas Milani is co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. He’s also a professor and director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University. He left Iran in 1986. Welcome gentlemen.

Professor Milani, is this new president of Iran a dangerous man, a danger to the rest of the world?

ABBAS MILANI: I think he is a dangerous man both for Iran as well as the Middle East and the rest of the world. He’s dangerous for Iran because he has brought down the economy into an almost screeching halt. He has given Iran, that historically has had a fairly good relationship with the Jewish population, Iran was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel — Iran is mentioned very favorably in the Old Testament — it has given Iran a very, very bad name. So that is a very dangerous thing. And his rhetoric is clearly destabilizing the Middle East. For all those three reasons I think he is, indeed, a dangerous man.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree Professor Bakhash, that he’s a danger, he’s a threat?

SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, he is a threat not in the sense that Iran is going to attack the West but clearly he has exacerbated relations in a very severe way between Iran and the Europeans and the West. And also if the language is used against Israel means that Iran is going to ratchet up its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic jihad on the — in the West Bank and attempt to wreck any Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, obviously this is a new factor in the whole situation.

MARGARET WARNER: But these remarks, this remark he made about Israel wiping it off the face of the map, should we take that as a declaration of intent or just hot but hollow rhetoric?

SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, it is not hollow rhetoric because this has always been the Iranian position, that Israel is an illegitimate state that does not deserve to exist and Iran’s supreme leader has used similar language in the past, although not recently.

What we see with Ahmadinejad is a reversion to the kind of rhetoric and language that Iran used publicly in the past but did not during say the Khatami presidency.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Milani, address the question that Professor Bakhash raised in his very first answer which is would Ahmadinejad follow up on his threats against Israel with increased support for Islamic jihad, other terrorist groups in the West Bank and in Gaza. The Israelis say, in fact, he has. Do you agree?

ABBAS MILANI: Well, I have no intelligence. The Israelis might have intelligence that would indicate that. There is more action in Lebanon in the last few days. But I think if you look at the regime’s overall behavior, and I don’t think Ahmadinejad is strong enough yet to actually call the shots, but if you look at the past behavior, they have been very cautious in terms of how far they will push the envelope. They will try to make Hezbollah a nuisance; they will arm the Hezbollah; they will give lip service to the uprising in the Palestinian part of Israel, the occupied territories. But they haven’t actually done anything that would radically change the balance of the forces.

I don’t anticipate them changing that because this is a regime that first and foremost is interested in self-preservation. And everything they do, even the rhetoric of Mr. Ahmadinejad, I think, is partly to agitate, to mobilize the base that he needs in order to fight the increasing crisis that is involving Iran in economic, and political, diplomatic isolation.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Milani, explain one thing. This man ran for presidency, he was going to improve the economy. Yet he has now fired, he has said and done all these things we have just been through. He has also fired these 40 top diplomats, many of whom were advocates of closer ties with the West. Why if he wants to encourage investment from foreign sources is he alienating the West?

ABBAS MILANI: Well, as I said, it is very difficult for me to figure out what the economic logic of it is because he has also said a number of things had that have brought their banking system, for example, to a crisis. There has been a massive flight of capital from Iran. Instead of any capital coming into Iran, there are sources that indicate up to $200 billion has left Iran in the last few months. There are again according to the government’s own sources, 10,000 new companies that have been created in the last four months alone.

So there is a massive flight of capital because nobody is sure what this new cabal is going to do. Are they going to nationalize the banks, are they going to close the stock market? So the incompetence is so overwhelming that I think some of the members of the ruling elite in Iran are recognizing this and are trying, albeit still inefficiently — ineffectively to control him.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Bakhash, how do you explain what he has said and done? Do you think really viscerally he is anti-western?

SHAUL BAKHASH: Oh, I think he comes very much from that tradition. And the speech on Israel contained a great deal more on the West and its relations with the Islamic world. And he described that confrontation almost in apocalyptic terms. So I think, yes, there is something visceral in his comments. He also speaks for a certain constituency, an element in the Iranian leadership, in the revolutionary guards, in the paramilitary forces, which is very hard line against the West. And so this is a revival, really of that sentiment which has been dormant, in a way, under the presidency of the previous president.

MARGARET WARNER: So what do you think this is going to mean if we go now to the nuclear standoff for the efforts by the Europeans taking the lead with US backing to try to prevent Iran from developing the capability to make nuclear weapons?

SHAUL BAKHASH: I don’t think Iran’s position on the nuclear issue has fundamentally changed. And Iran even before Ahmadinejad became president insisted on retaining the fuel cycle and so forth.

MARGARET WARNER: But may I just interrupt you, do you think that he is actually more — whatever the public rhetoric, do you think he is actually more intent on having Iran develop the weapons capability? Can we make that conclusion?

SHAUL BAKHASH: We don’t really know. But he certainly has adopted a much harder line on these negotiations and was critical of them in the past. But this is such an important issue that I think as Dr. Milani said, the major decisions will be made at the level of the supreme leadership rather than at his level.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Milani, finally in terms of world reaction, Prime Minister Tony Blair as he heard called his, for instance, his comments on Israel completely and totally unacceptable. But what, in fact, can or should the world do about it?

ABBAS MILANI: I think if you look at the history of Islamic republic in the last 25 years, one thing becomes very clear. What the mullahs understand is the language of power. They understand power well; they use it well; they see weakness well. They see weakness in others well.

If the world can come together and speak with one voice and say this kind of odious comments have no place in today’s world, if they say that we are not going to stand by and let the regime, for example, kill Mr. Ganji, who has been on a hunger strike for 55 days, who is now in prison, his wife just announced that they have been torturing him again, if the world speaks with one voice and they understand, the regime understands that the world is resolute, they will back down, as they have already backed down on the nuclear question.

I mean, they, in spite of the rhetoric, they just announced that they would allow investigators to go into Pachin, which they have never allowed before. They have allowed investigators to Iranian scientists, which they had never done before, so when they understand that Europe and the United States particularly, are united, they talk a different talk and walk a different walk.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Bakhash, do you think words from the West, even united words will be enough will do anything to moderate this new president?

SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, as Professor Milani said, already they have changed, softened the tone on Israel. But you know, Iran is being roiled internally by this new president. And the changes you mentioned in the foreign ministry, for example, the changing of 40 ambassadors, suggests that there is something powering this kind of new radicalism in Iran. And the supreme leader who we thought was in control of everything doesn’t —

MARGARET WARNER: The ayatollah.

SHAUL BAKHASH: Yes — doesn’t seem to be inclined yet to step in and prevent the damage that all this is doing to Iran’s international standing.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Shaul Bakhash and Professor Abbas Milani, thank you both.