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Menace in the Mideast

October 30, 2005

THE FRIGHTENING PROSPECT of a nuclear-armed Iran became even more terrifying last week with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declaration that Israel "must be wiped off the map."

Ahmadinejad's comments represented the first time in years that such a high-ranking Iranian official had called for Israel's eradication, although similar declarations are a staple of Iranian gatherings like the one he addressed, titled "The World Without Zionism." European Union leaders, Russia, the U.S. and Canada condemned the comments and summoned Iranian diplomats to protest.

Ahmadinejad was elected this summer after the Islamic clerics who wield the real power decided who could run and who could not. Their heavy tilt toward extreme conservatives like Ahmadinejad, the former Tehran mayor, reversed the slight openings to the West that were a part of the regime of his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

The policy of exterminating Israel has been a hallmark of Iran since radical Islamists seized power in 1979. The government funds terrorist organizations and the families of suicide bombers who murder Israeli civilians. Iran's government news agency -- which is not about to misquote the country's president -- reported that Ahmadinejad said the establishment of Israel was a blow to the Islamic world and that attacks by Palestinians would destroy the country. He also said Israel's withdrawal of its citizens and troops from Gaza was a trick.

The president's vituperative language should make countries not overly concerned by Tehran's nuclear program think twice. Iran claims it needs nuclear power for peaceful purposes (apparently hoping no one will notice its enormous oil reserves). Yet it has tried to hide its nuclear operations for years from the International Atomic Energy Agency. It's reasonable to worry that Iran wants to go beyond nuclear power plants to atomic weapons.

IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei, winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, said this month that the best way to stop the spread of nuclear weapons is for the international community to guarantee the supply of nuclear fuel to countries that agree not to produce it themselves. That's a proposal worth serious consideration. The uranium enrichment involved in producing reactor fuel can also be involved in producing nuclear weapons.

Iran already threatens the peace and stability of the Middle East, with its influence over Shiites in Iraq and funding of anti-Israel terrorists. If it obtained nuclear weapons, it would become a far greater threat and could lead nations such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt to seek their own nukes. The IAEA last month condemned Iran's nuclear activities and required that Tehran be reported to the U.N. Security Council, but the agency did not say when the referral should occur. Ahmadinejad's comments should advance the timetable and make countries more willing to impose sanctions on Iran.

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