London (UPI) Oct 28, 2005
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent call for Israel to be "wiped off the map" has enraged much of the international community and heightened fears that Tehran's nuclear intentions are military in nature.
However opinions are divided as to whether his comments should be seen as an indication of a growing threat to the West.
Both Britain and the United States have stated their belief that Ahmadinejad's comments, made Wednesday at a "World without Zionism" conference, underline the growing threat posed by Iran to global security.
But Dr. Rosemary Hollis, director of research at the prominent British foreign affairs think tank Chatham House, said the remarks should be seen as a statement of Ahmadinejad's own position rather than as a fully-fledged policy of the Iranian establishment.
Speaking at an informal EU summit outside London Thursday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that if Iran continued down its present route, "people are going to believe that they are a real threat to our world stability and security."
Ahmadinejad sparked international condemnation when he described Israel as a "disgraceful blot" that should be "wiped off the map."
In an address to thousands of students attending the conference Ahmadinejad also appeared to threaten with retaliation Middle Eastern states that sought to improve relations with the Jewish state.
"Anybody who recognizes Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation's fury," Iranian state television quoted him as saying. "The Islamic world will not let its historic enemy live in its heartland."
Blair issued a stark warning to Iran not to become complacent about the possibility of military action.
"There are people in Iran, in the leadership, who believe that the world is sufficiently distracted with everything else that we can't really afford the time to focus on this issue," he said. "I think they will be making a very big mistake if they do that."
Iran's attitudes towards Israel, towards terrorism and on the nuclear weapons issue were "unacceptable," he said, adding: "You imagine a state like that, with an attitude like that, having a nuclear weapon."
The United States said Ahmadinejad's remarks proved that Iran's nuclear ambitions -- for which it is facing a referral to the United Nations Security Council -- were not peaceful ones.
Israel responded by calling for Iran to be expelled from the United Nations.
"A country calling for the destruction of another people cannot be a member of the U.N.," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said.
Palestinian and Egyptian officials also rejected Ahmadinejad's position.
Tehran later attempted to play down the comments, saying in a statement released through its Moscow embassy that the president's words had been sharper than intended.
But Ahmadinejad himself refused to back down, saying at a mass rally in Tehran Friday: "My words were the Iranian nation's words."
His comments are likely to confirm international fears the recently elected president is reverting to a hard-line foreign policy reminiscent of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's Islamic revolution.
But analysts said that in reality, it is not Ahmadinejad but Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds the strings of power.
The former mayor of Tehran is the protege of Khamenei, who backed him in the summer's presidential election against reformist candidates. It is the unelected supreme leader, who, along with the mullahs' Guardian Council, makes all the final decisions on major affairs of state.
While the comments were "significant," Rosemary Hollis told United Press International, they had to be seen in the context of his position within Iran. Ahmadinejad was not in a position to suddenly order a military strike on Israel, she said.
He had been elected because of maneuvering by Iranian conservatives against the reformers, she continued. Hard-liners in the religious establishment had backed him in order to block the more moderate former president, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani; however he had not necessarily been their candidate of choice in policy or ideological terms.
When Ahmadinejad was mayor of Tehran, his ideological rants had been relatively inconsequential, she said; however now some conservatives were "not sympathetic" with his position on the world stage.
The hard-line president had brought the sentiments of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini back to the center stage as if nothing had happened in the years since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, she said -- a position "completely at odds" with the progression of Iranian foreign policy and international relations in the intervening period.
The Iran-Iraq war, during which Iran had been virtually abandoned by the international community, had left a "residue of fear of isolation" in the country, she said.
Rafsanjani had begun a policy of outreach, beginning with the South Asian and Arab states, and had established a relatively good relationship with Europe. During the Clinton years, there had even been moves towards improving relations with the United States.
All of this was at odds with Ahmadinejad as "the standard-bearer of an extremist, anti-western, anti-Israeli stance."
And while there is popular support within Iran for pursing nuclear technology, there is not much enthusiasm for going out on a limb to help the Palestinians, she said.
What was now crucial was the action the conservatives now took to temper the effect of Ahmadinejad's words, she said. But whether or not Iran is truly an imminent threat to world peace does not necessarily alter the likelihood of military action on the part of Britain, the United States or Israel.
The breakdown of diplomatic efforts over Iran's burgeoning nuclear program -- which Tehran insists is for purely peaceful purposes -- has already left the country facing referral to the U.N. Security Council, and hard-line voices in Washington are clamoring for decisive action.
While British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has in the past described military action as "inconceivable," Blair has consistently refused to rule it out.
And speaking to UPI, Downing Street Spokesman Ian Gleeson said that while the prime minister's warning did not amount to "a declaration of war," military action was a serious option.
International consensus was mounting about the need to deal with the Islamic Republic, Gleeson said, pointing out that Blair had been speaking not only as British prime minister but as the current president of the EU.
While there were diplomatic processes to be gone through, military action was certainly not "off the table," he confirmed.
"The Iranians should be in no doubt that they are in a very serious place," he said.
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