Say What, Mittens?

In last night’s foreign policy (where “foreign policy” now includes wrangling about U.S. standardized test scores) debate, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said something weird about Iran.

Actually, he said a number of weird things about Iran, including claiming (and not for the first time!) that Syria is Iran’s “route to the sea.” But for my money, the strangest thing he said was:

“I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it.”

He’s said this one before as well, and I’ve wondered what he could possible mean by it. Well, last night, TPM asked Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom to clarify, and my confusion only increased.

Apparently, the Romney campaign is under the impression that the “World Court” could arrest Ahmadinejad for allegedly saying that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” Here are some problems with that plan:

  1. The “World Court” is the International Court of Justice. It has no criminal jurisdiction, and therefore cannot indict or arrest anyone.
  2. The Genocide Convention is a treaty among states (including the U.S. and Iran) that says that the parties to the treaty must prevent and punish genocide crimes. It does establish that incitement to genocide is a crime under international law, but it is not a criminal statute under which individuals can be indicted.
  3. If Romney and his advisors perhaps meant to invoke the International Criminal Court, rather than the ICJ, well, that’s a problem too. Although incitement to genocide IS a crime under the Rome Statute, the U.S. isn’t a party to the ICC, which means it can’t refer cases to the Prosecutor. 
  4. Romney is advised on foreign policy by John Bolton, who famously described the U.S.’s decision to pull out of the ICC as “[t]he happiest moment of [his] government service”, so it seems unlikely that a Romney administration would mean an about-face for U.S. policy on the ICC.
  5. Even if the U.S. did join, the ICC can only prosecute cases in which either the crime is committed on the territory of a state party, or the perpetrator is a national of a state party. (Unless the Security Council gets involved, but that’s not a possibility here.) Iran has not joined the ICC.
So I’m still stumped. The only (barely) legally plausible option here is to bring a case against Iran in the ICJ for violating its treaty obligations under the Genocide Convention. But the persistent use of the word “indictment” by both Romney and his surrogates suggests that isn’t what he’s got in mind. Anyone understand what’s going on here?



Kate Cronin-Furman


  1. Of course you are right – but come on, really don’t think Romney cares about the detail do you? He just wants easy sound bites to win the election. And promises of bringing down Ahmadinejad is going to be his answer to “getting osama”. The US cultural psyche is predicated on “getting the bad guy” – and in that context, his election ‘promises’ are not that surprising.

  2. It’s probably worth pointing out Ahmedinejad didn’t actually say this either – it stems from a particularly poor live translation. What he actually said was an expression of desire to see regime change in Israel – a similar level of rhetoric as deployed by the US against countries like Iran and North Korea – so Mittens really doesn’t have a leg to stand on here.

  3. Because this prompted me to look it up again, here’s the most authoritative debunking I could find, by Juan Cole who has his own personality…

    “Belief: Iran has threatened to attack Israel militarily and to “wipe it off the map.”

    Reality: No Iranian leader in the executive has threatened an aggressive act of war on Israel, since this would contradict the doctrine of ‘no first strike’ to which the country has adhered. The Iranian president has explicitly said that Iran is not a threat to any country, including Israel.

    Belief: But didn’t President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threaten to ‘wipe Israel off the map?’

    Reality: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did quote Ayatollah Khomeini to the effect that “this Occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” (in rezhim-e eshghalgar-i Qods bayad as safheh-e ruzgar mahv shavad). This was not a pledge to roll tanks and invade or to launch missiles, however. It is the expression of a hope that the regime will collapse, just as the Soviet Union did. It is not a threat to kill anyone at all.”


  4. The plot thickens:

    “Others in the Romney camp seemed a little unsure of how the indictment would play out. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, told TPM after the debate that the hypothetical charges wouldn’t even be about Israel, but about the violent repression of his own people.

    ““No, no, I thought he meant in terms of what’s going on internally in Iran,” Sununu said. “I think that’s what the reference was to.””

    #Huh? Under the Genocide Convention?

  5. I think you are being too picky about his use of the word “indict.” Sure, its legally incorrect, but he wouldn’t get much mileage out of “I would have the US bring a dispute to the ICJ regarding the question of weather or not Ahmadinejad’s actions are a violation of the Genocide Convention.”

    • Don’t think so, H. It’s been pretty clear (to the extent of any of this is clear) the numerous times he’s brought this up that he’s talking about criminal proceedings.

  6. If Ahmadinejad were actually inciting genocide, couldn’t the ICC conceivably have jurisdiction based on this incitement being broadcast in a state party, e.g. Afghanistan or Jordan? (Of course given the actual facts of the case it is inconceivable that the ICC would indict.)

  7. Also worth noting that he suggested a country should not exist, not that its people should not. It’s an imperfect example but no one accused Tanganyika of genocide when it said Zanzibar should not exist as a country and took it over to form Tanzania- wiping it off the map as an independent country.

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