(CNSNews.com) - As the U.S. election campaign revisits the question of whether an American president should meet unconditionally with heads of hostile regimes, a drive to haul the Iranian leader before an international court may be picking up steam.
More than two years after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began publicly calling for Israel's demise and questioning the veracity of the Holocaust, at least one government says it is looking seriously at the legal options that may be available.
Last week, Ahmadinejad stepped up his rhetoric, greeting the Jewish state's 60th birthday commemorations by declaring on state television that "death and annihilation" awaited Israel.
The Australian government says it is taking legal advice on whether a case could be brought against the Iranian president before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a television interview called Ahmadinejad's statements "appalling by any standards of current international relations" and "an incitement to international violence."
Rudd said it was important for the international community to be united in its condemnation of Ahmadinejad's remarks. They went beyond mere hyperbole, and could have a "roll-on effect across the Islamic world to those who listen to Iran for their guidance," he said.
President Bush, too, in recent days has warned against ignoring or taking lightly such threatening statements.
"When a leader of Iran says they want to destroy Israel, you've got to take those words seriously," he said in a weekend NBC News interview.
Bush was asked in the interview about criticism over an address he gave to the Israeli Knesset last Thursday, in which he cited threats by Ahmadinejad and others and then questioned the wisdom of negotiating with "terrorists and radicals," recalling the historical appeasement of Hitler and "the consequences of disregarding the words of leaders who espouse hatred."
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama interpreted the comments as a direct attack. In a campaign debate last summer, the Illinois senator said that as president he would be willing to hold talks, without condition, with the leaders of Iran and other countries hostile to the United States. Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain on Friday called Obama's stance reckless, and Obama hit back at both Bush and McCain, accusing them of distorting his position.
The Iranian president has on a number of occasions since October 2005 been quoted as saying Israel should be destroyed (some have disputed the translations, but he has been accused of using phrases including "wiped off the map," "removed from the pages of history," and "purged from the center of the Islamic world.")
Ahmadinejad also has called the Holocaust -- the Nazis' systematic killing of six million European Jews during World War II -- a "myth," and in late 2006 Tehran hosted an international conference on the subject. The Iranian capital was also the venue earlier that same year of an exhibition of cartoons with a Holocaust theme.
The law under which Australia is considering bringing action is the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a 1948 document that prohibits not just actual or attempted genocide but also "direct and public incitement to commit genocide."
Serbia was the first government found to have breached the convention. The ICJ early last year ruled that Belgrade had violated its obligation to prevent genocide, in the case of the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, Bosnia.
(The ICJ, based in The Hague, is a U.N. body that settles cases between member states, on the basis of international law. It differs from the International Criminal Court, also located in the Dutch capital, which was set up in 2003 to deal with cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and other human rights violations.)
A leading Australian international law scholar said he was not aware of any previous case of a state bringing a case against another at the ICJ under the 1948 convention, specifically for the "incitement" offense.
Donald Rothwell, professor of international law at the Australian National University in Canberra, outlined some of the challenges that would face legal action against Ahmadinejad.
Those arguing the case would have to demonstrate, on the available evidence, that there had been "direct and public incitement" and that the statements constituted incitement to commit genocide, he said.
This would require examining both the actual statements and whether there was anything particular about Israel -- as opposed to any other country -- that would make those statements "liable to characterization as amounting to genocide."
The fact that Israel is a predominantly Jewish state would provide strong support for that particular aspect of the claim, Rothwell said.
Another issue would involve whether the state of Iran bears legal responsibility under the genocide convention for statements made by its president.
Rothwell said there was nothing to stop any country that is party to the convention to bring a case against another. Both Australia and Iran have ratified the convention.
The ICJ is the appropriate forum for such a case, as clause nine of the convention provides for the ICJ to take up any disputes that may arise between ratifying states over its "interpretation, application or fulfillment."
Although some might argue that the ICC would be a better route, Rothwell explained that Australia would not itself be able to launch an action at the ICC; it could only recommend that the ICC's prosecutor investigate the possibility of bringing a case.
"By going through the ICJ Australia is able to have much more control over the proceedings."
'No place for Israel'
Australia is believed to be the first government to be considering international legal action, although prominent individuals and groups have made similar calls.
Former Massachusetts governor and erstwhile GOP 2008 presidential hopeful Mitt Romney raised the suggestion in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last year.
Also last year, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations urged the U.S. and other governments to act to bring an indictment against Ahmadinejad for violating the genocide convention.
At a late 2006 symposium in New York City entitled "Bring Ahmadinejad to Justice For Incitement to Genocide," former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton warned against dismissing as the "the ravings of lunatics" the words of those who openly threaten atrocities.
"There are times in history when people say things like, 'I'm going to do x,' and they say it repeatedly, and they're criticized for it, and they keep saying it - and then someday they actually do it," Bolton said.
The symposium was organized by the Conference of Presidents and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think tank headed by former Israeli U.N. ambassador Dore Gold.
Gold and others have argued that Ahmadinejad's statements should be seen in the context of Iran's support for terrorist groups committed to the destruction of Israel and of its suspected attempts to develop a nuclear weapons capability.
Ahmadinejad's October 2005 remarks that first drew international condemnation were in fact quoting the late Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
According to Hossein Shariatmadari, an advisor to Khomenei's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that stance is official Iranian policy.
"The issue of wiping Israel off the world map is the same as what the founder of the Republic of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini once said," Shariatmadari told the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat a year ago.
"Since the onset of the Republic, the foreign policy of Iran was built on this strategy," he said. "We believe that the geography of the region has no place for a state called Israel."
Attempts to obtain comment from the Iranian Embassy in Canberra were unsuccessful.
Tehran has repeatedly denied that its nuclear program has military goals, saying that it is intended for purely peaceful energy-generation purposes.
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