Waking up to a nuclear Iran?

Negotiators wait for photographers during a meeting at the hotel where the Iran nuclear talks are being held in Vienna, Austria July 6, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Negotiators wait for photographers during a meeting at the hotel where the Iran nuclear talks are being held in Vienna, Austria July 6, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Imagine waking up to the news that an Islamic republic from which terrorists have operated has nuclear weapons.
No imagination is required. That reality is already here.
The Islamic republic of Pakistan is where Osama bin-Laden lived a largely untroubled life. The Mumbai terrorist attacks were launched there. US drones operate in Pakistan to counter “militants.” The government is vulnerable. And Pakistan has approximately 120 nuclear weapons capable of reaching most of the Middle East, including Israel. Today.
How do we sleep at night? Why are we not agitated about this unsettling situation? And why are we resolutely opposed to the idea of Iran attaining even one future bomb, while hardly even discussing Pakistan’s already existing arsenal? There are multiple answers. Some have to do with strategic interests, alliances and geography. But the most important answer is a moral one: the Iranian regime has genocidal intent, which it has restated on countless occasions in graphic, menacing tones.
Indeed analogies between the Iranian leadership and Nazis are superfluous. The ayatollahs need no guide in the art of dehumanization and demonization. Describing Israel or the Jewish people as a “filthy germ,” a “savage beast,” a “cancerous tumor,” a “stain of disgrace,” “a stinking corpse,” “more misguided than cattle” or a “cancerous bacterium” is a staple of their public pronouncements.
And the Iranian regime has a “solution” for eradicating this disease. In the words of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the cure is the “annihilation of the Jewish state,” or “killing all the Jews.” Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held that “anyone who loves freedom and justice must strive for the annihilation of the Zionist regime.” In the very week that the West was concluding its agreement with Iran, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had no compunction in stating that “the presence of the Israeli regime is temporary.
Eventually one day this alien forged existence...will be wiped off the map.”
Such utterances have been multiplied many times over. As breathtaking as they are, their regular repetition has led to them being treated as “background noise” – unpleasant to be sure, but not intrusive enough to ruin a good get-together.
This is a mistake. These profoundly shocking statements, amplified by the constant refrain of “death to America,” constitute an egregious, undisguised, protracted case of incitement to genocide. And incitement to genocide has been a crime under international law for almost 70 years.
In 1948, a horrified world came together to draft the landmark “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” The eminent Canadian jurist Irwin Cotler observed that the Convention “holds a unique place in international law. It is recognized as compelling and overriding law, articulating and establishing obligations owed by all members of the international community to all members of the international community.”
Crucially, Article 3 of the Convention expressly prohibits “direct and public incitement” to genocide, recognizing that incitement is a preparatory step toward genocide.
The international community decided that incitement to genocide itself – even if genocide did not materialize – should become a punishable crime under international law. The goal, regularly ignored since 1948, was to prevent genocide before it could happen.
Iran is a signatory to the Genocide Convention. As Cotler has pointed out, the genocidal incitement of the Iranian leadership could be referred by the Security Council for prosecution before the International Criminal Court. Even if the proposal were vetoed at the Security Council, the debate itself would be instructive. Alternatively, any state party to the Convention could initiate a complaint against Iran’s leaders before the International Court of Justice, targeting their illegal genocidal incitement directly.
Preventing Iran attaining a nuclear weapon is plainly the first priority. In the midst of a wrenching debate over the agreement with Iran, the West ought to take some measure of satisfaction that for two decades it has kept the Iranian leadership from attaining a bomb. Clearly, any measure that truly prohibits the Iranian regime from getting the means to destabilize the region further and to give expression to its genocidal intent is commendable.
But blocking the Iranian leadership from attaining nuclear hardware is not enough. Whether the current deal is approved or not, international sanctions will soon be gone. After Vienna, there is no going back. The world intends to do business with Iran. Yesterday’s pariahs are already becoming today’s partners. The polite language of the agreement recalls none of Iran’s ongoing misdeeds...the deal, with or without approval, has begun to make Tehran seem respectable.
Genocidal inciters must never become respectable. We should be just as worried about who controls the weapons as we are about the weapons themselves. The two are inseparable. Nuclear weapons in the hands of radical ideologues who openly incite genocide represent an intolerable nightmare.
The world should not pretend that doing business with Iran is benign commerce. The world should be reminded that money that strengthens the Iranian regime supports those who are likely criminals in the eyes of international law and guilty of offenses that we all have an international obligation to stop. The law exists. The question is: do we have the moral resolve to use it? For those who think that the proposed deal does not do enough to avert disaster, pursuing the Iranian leadership offers another strategy. For those who think that the proposed deal is sufficient to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, targeting illegal genocidal incitement is a key additional safeguard.
It is time to use international law for the purpose for which it was so carefully designed: to prosecute and punish those who incite genocide so that they cannot commit it. As much as it is critical to arrest the development of nuclear weapons, it is critical to arrest the inciters. Morality matters. International law matters.
Stopping genocidal intent is not a matter of choice.
And silence is a response we dare not risk.
The author is the Federation Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and the president of the Museum of Jewish Ideas. He resides in Jerusalem.