BY TELLING a conference in Tehran Wednesday that ''Israel must be wiped off the map," Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not only revealing the hate-twisted face of the Islamist hard-liners who took over key government posts following his suspect election last June. He was also throwing down a challenge to the governments of the world.
Ahmadinejad mocked every country that accepts the United Nations' principle of respect for the sovereignty of all other member states. For if Iran's president can openly call for the annihilation of Israel without censure or penalty, the bedrock purpose of the United Nations -- to create a world order rooted in collective security -- will be emptied of meaning.
Several governments have issued statements denouncing Ahmadinejad's outburst. It was called stupid, offensive, unacceptable. But it was not merely a rhetorical faux pas. The nations of the world need to take what he said at face value: as a threat. A murderous suicide bombing this week in the Israeli town of Hadera, perpetrated by the small, Iranian-sponsored terrorist group Islamic Jihad, underlined that threat.
What Ahmadinejad said expressed a fanatical mentality, the outlook of a political leader who served as a security boss in Iran's notorious Evin prison after Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and is said by former inmates to have personally finished off executed political prisoners with a bullet to the head. Iran specialists commonly report that Ahmadinejad represents only one current of thought in Iran's leadership and that other influential figures are more pragmatic. If so, that is even more reason to make it clear that there is a price to pay for a regime that not only assassinates its domestic dissidents but issues overt threats of eradication against another nation.
It is not enough for other governments to call in Iran's ambassador and ask for an explanation of Ahmadinejad's remarks, as many are doing. The tenor of his reaction to this kind of polite diplomatic complaint was on display in a circular sent to Iran's diplomats abroad by the foreign minister in Ahmadinejad's Cabinet, Manouchehr Mottaki, telling them to ''go on the offensive" when called in for an explanation by their host governments. Iran's ambassadors were told to protest against the policies of Western nations ''and urge Europe's condemnation of Israel."
At a time when those Western nations are trying to negotiate an arrangement with Iran that allows that country to develop nuclear energy for civilian use without being able to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, the Iranian regime has to be told it cannot make death threats against other members of the United Nations. The UN Security Council should demand that Iran retract Ahmadinejad's threats or be suspended from the world body.