Introduction: Rhetoric in the Rouhani Era
In 2008, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs published its first in-depth study of the Iranian leadership’s views on Israel and Jews. At the time, much of the debate on the subject was focused on then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statement that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” A controversy arose over whether he indeed made this remark or was mistranslated, as some academics suggested.
In fact, Ahmadinejad was articulating what has long been, and remains, common parlance in Iran. In 2012, the Jerusalem Center published a collection of Iranian leaders’ statements from 2009-2012. The study proved that anti-Israel incitement was never confined to Ahmadinejad, who in any event is no longer in power. The entire Iranian leadership, which takes its cues from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his predecessor, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, yearns for the day when Israel will be destroyed. This powerful circle includes senior clerics, top Revolutionary Guard commanders, and army officers.
In 2013, a new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, was sworn into office. While more soft-spoken than his predecessor – and widely described as a “moderate” – Rouhani has nonetheless referred to “the Zionist regime” as an enemy nation and pledged to find a way to achieve Khomeini’s long-term goal of ensuring that Israel ceases to exist.
In some of the statements that appear below, there are Iranian leaders who couch their calls for Israel’s destruction in the language of a retaliatory operation. But ultimately they derive their position from Khomeini’s ideological legacy, which did not make Israel’s elimination contingent upon Israel striking first. Moreover, when the Iranians fasten signs on trucks carrying their Shahab-3 missiles calling for Israel to be wiped off the map, they leave little doubt as to their mission, without any qualifications.
Incitement to Genocide
The 1948 Genocide Convention lists incitement to commit genocide as a war crime. Much of the Iranian language regarding Israel can certainly be legally defined this way.
A common motif of incitement to genocide is the dehumanization of the target population. The Nazi weekly Der Stürmer portrayed Jews as parasites and locusts. In the early 1990s in Rwanda, Hutu propaganda described the Tutsis as “cockroaches.” Before Saddam Hussein’s operations against the Iraqi Shia population in 1991, his Baath Party newspaper characterized them as “monkey-faced people.” Similarly, former President Ahmadinejad has called Israeli Jews “cattle,” “blood-thirsty barbarians,” and “criminals,” while Iranian state-owned websites have explained why the destruction of Israel and the slaughter of its population would be justified. Dehumanization has also appeared in other forms, such as demonization, in which the target population is labeled “Satanic” – a theme repeatedly used by Iranian leaders to describe Israel.
In fact, according to Prof. Gregory Gordon, who served as a legal officer for the first post-Nuremberg prosecutions for incitement to genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Iranian calls for Israel to be wiped off the map are “even more direct than much of the language from the Rwandan cases.”
The following summary of Iranian leaders’ anti-Israel statements from 2013 demonstrates the consistency of the regime’s rhetoric, the clarity of its intentions, and the certainty of its beliefs. On top of all this, the statements serve as a reminder of the nature of a regime that is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability.
1. “Israel’s leaders sometimes threaten Iran, but they know that if they do a damn thing, the Islamic Republic will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground.”
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Supreme Leader of Iran
In the Iranian system, the highest-ranking political authority is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. Khamenei has been calling for Israel’s destruction for many years.
José María Aznar, a former prime minister of Spain, recalled meeting Khamenei during his time in office in Oct. 2000. “Israel, to him, was a kind of historical cancer, an anomaly, a country to be put in flames and condemned to disappear,” Aznar said. “Khamenei said very clearly that Iran must eliminate Israel and wipe it off the map.”
In a Friday sermon on Dec. 15, 2000, Khamenei declared, “Iran’s position, which was first expressed by the Imam [Khomeini]…is that the cancerous tumor called Israel must be uprooted from the region.” A month later, he repeated his message. “The foundation of the Islamic regime is opposition to Israel and the perpetual subject of Iran is the elimination of Israel from the region.”
More recently, on Nov. 20, 2013, Khamenei told an assembly of some 50,000 Basij militiamen that Israel was ready to fall. “The Zionist regime is a regime whose pillars are extremely shaky and is doomed to collapse,” he said. Israelis, he added, “should not be called humans.”
Lest there be any confusion about the meaning of Khamenei’s words, the next day, he published a photo on Twitter that appeared to show Israeli soldiers with a German shepherd attacking a Palestinian woman. The supreme leader’s statement, in plain English, was overlaid on the photo: “Israel is the sinister, unclean rabid dog of the region.” In Islam, dogs are traditionally seen as impure. Adding the modifier “rabid” leaves only one interpretation about what the dog’s fate should be.
2. “The Imam [Khomeini] set long-term goals for the day the occupying Zionist regime is no longer in the region. The formula for this move must be discussed in the government.”
President of Iran
3. “The Army of Iran can by itself destroy Israel.”
Maj. Gen. Ataollah Salehi
Commander-in-Chief of the Iranian Army
4. “According to the Supreme Leader’s statement marking Nowruz, if Israel acts foolishly, Tel Aviv and Haifa will be annihilated….The armed forces are prepared with all their power to execute the orders of the Supreme Leader in minimum time.”
Gen. Mohammad Hejazi
Deputy Chief of Staff
5. “Our battalions are named Imam Ali, Imam Hussein and Bayt al-Maqdis [Jerusalem] to clarify our final destination to the Basiji. We will not abandon our [armed] struggle until the annihilation of Israel and until we will be able to pray in al-Aqsa mosque.”
Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi
Commander of the Basij militia
6. “The enemies are talking about the options [they have] on the table. They should know that the first option on our table is the annihilation of Israel.”
Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani
Lecturer at religious seminary in Qom
7. “We must spare no effort in liberating holy Jerusalem and cutting off the hands of the infidels from this holy site.”
Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani
Assembly of Experts Chairman
8. “The Zionist regime will soon be destroyed, and this generation will be witness to its destruction.”
Hojatoleslam Ali Shirazi
Supreme Leader’s representative in the Revolutionary Guards
9. “The issue of Palestine is an Islamic issue. The Islamic world must come together to destroy the false Israeli regime….If this happens, nothing will be left of Israel.”
Ayatollah Mohammed Ali Movahedi-Kermani
Tehran’s interim Friday Imam
10. “As the Supreme Leader has stated, if the Zionists cause any problems for Iran, Haifa and Tel Aviv will be annihilated.”
Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi
Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader
11. “Iran has long-range missiles that can reach 1,500 kilometers….The Supreme Leader maintained that ‘every combatant Palestinian group that fights the Zionist regime will receive the support of the Iranian regime.’”
Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami
Member of the Presidium of the Assembly of Experts
12. “The only way to subdue the enemies is by refusing to compromise on the goals of the resistance and to remain strong; the future of criminal nations such as the Zionists will be erased from the history books.”
Hojatoleslam Mohammad Hassan Akhtari
Hizbullah Operations Liaison, Former Ambassador to Syria
13. “If once the destruction and demise of occupying Israel was an impossible and unattainable dream, today thanks to the historic and intelligent actions of Imam Khomeini, it has become possible and is actually in the process of occurring.”
Iranian Ministry of Defense statement
14. “The day will come when the Islamic people in the region will destroy Israel and save the world from this Zionist base.”
Hojateleslam Alireza Panahian
Advisor to Office of the Supreme Leader in Universities
15. “The day is near in which the sword of resistance and Islamic Awakening will cut off the blood supply of the occupiers of the holy land of Palestine.”
Revolutionary Guards statement
16. “Every Muslim who does not want to fight Israel is violating religious law and essentially forgetting Israel’s crimes over the past 60 years on Islamic soil.”
Member of the Majlis Executive Committee
17. “The only solution to the Palestine problem is the destruction of the Zionist regime….We view the wondrous resistance as the only way towards a victorious and inspiring battle against the false, illegitimate Zionist regime.”
Basij organization media outlet
18. “[The United States and Israel] should not make a mistake, because if they make even the smallest mistake, we will not remain silent and will annihilate Haifa and Tel Aviv.”
Deputy Chairman of the Majlis Foreign Policy Commission
19. “The destruction of Israel is the idea of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and is one of the pillars of the Iranian Islamic regime. We cannot claim that we have no intention of going to war with Israel!”
Member of the Assembly of Experts
20. Iranian State Television Airs Animated Strike on Israel
An imagined Iranian missile strike on Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv and Dimona, malls, and IDF bases.
Conclusion: Hostile Intent and Missile Capability
The danger of the Iranian regime is not confined to the rhetoric of its leaders. As demonstrated in the above quotes, Iran’s desire to see Israel destroyed is clear, but even more worrisome is the fact that the Islamic Republic is developing the capabilities that will enable it to carry out its intentions.
The Iranian Armed Forces regularly hold military parades in Tehran. One of the main displays in such parades are truckloads of Shahab-3 missiles, which have a range of 1,300 km. (800 miles) – far enough to strike Israel. Fixed on the front or side of these missile trucks are banners that read, “Israel must be wiped off the map.” The message is often translated into English by the Iranians themselves.
On Sep. 22, 2013, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, attended a military parade, reviewed the forces, and addressed the crowd. He was accompanied by the heads of the Iranian Armed Forces. Seated to his right was the Chief of Staff, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi, and to his left was the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Mohammad-Ali Jafari.
As in the past, the parade in 2013 contained a blatant statement calling for Israel’s destruction. On the lead vehicle of a line of trucks transporting Shahab-3 missiles, there appeared a banner that read in Persian, “Esraail baayad az beyn beravad,” which means “Israel should cease to exist.”
Could the message be any clearer? Iran broadcast its desire to destroy Israel on top of the missile that can strike Israel and fulfill that desire.
As if that was not enough cause for concern, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned in a May 2011 report of Iranian efforts “involving the removal of the conventional high explosive payload from the warhead of the Shahab-3 missile and replacing it with a spherical nuclear payload.”
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall is an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East. He is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Terrogence Company.
Daniel Rubenstein is an editor and researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Follow his personal Twitter account @paulrubens.