Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Iran and Israel: challenging the propaganda

Last Friday, the Guardian published the following letter:

"John Pilger claims that "Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never threatened to 'wipe Israel off the map'".

There have been competing translations of his words, but it is important to note that, while a collection of western academics and journalists have busied themselves with the task of "informing" everyone of the "falsity" of the claim, Ahmadinejad himself has been relishing the enhanced status he enjoys in Iran and certain quarters of the Muslim world as a result of the widespread belief that he did, indeed, threaten to wipe Israel off the map. Moreover, within Iran, banners featuring the English translation that Mr Pilger disputes have been photographed draped over government buildings, as well as over Shahab-3 missiles featured in official military parades.

It seems that President Ahmadinejad is successful at satisfying two distinct audiences: those at home who believe they have a leader brave enough to call for the destruction of Israel; and those in the west who have an ideological objection to recognising that Iran has threatened Israel, no matter what the evidence to the contrary."
Adel Darwish
Director, Just Journalism

My response was published in this morning's paper:

"Adel Darwish of the pro-Israeli lobby group Just Journalism says (Letters, August 8) that "a collection of western academics and journalists have busied themselves with the task of 'informing' everyone of the 'falsity' of the claim" that Iran's president threatened to attack and destroy Israel. This is a funny way of saying that people who actually speak Farsi have offered a correct translation of Ahmadinejad's words.

Darwish neglects to mention that as soon as the mistranslation of Ahmadinejad's words began to circulate, Ayatollah Khamenei (who has ultimate authority in Iran) stated unequivocally that "the Islamic Republic has never threatened and will never threaten any country". Darwish also refrains from explaining why we should believe that a regime which has done everything to preserve itself over the past three decades should suddenly commit collective suicide by attacking Israel. All in all, it's quite a story."
David Wearing

(I've added some links in the above two letters here, for background).

The Guardian editors amended my letter so that it described Just Journalism as "pro-Israeli", where my own choice of words in the original letter was "pro-Israeli state". The distinction is material. As I've written here in another context, its important not to conflate the government and the people when talking about a given country. So for example, it is no more "pro-Britain" to support the policies of Gordon Brown's government than it is "anti-Britain" to criticise them, as though criticism of the government's actions constituted some sort of racism against the British.

The "pro Israel / anti Israel" dichotomy is essentially a propaganda tool which apologists for the Israeli government use to avoid reasoned discussion of the factual record (unsurprisingly, since the facts hardly support their political positions). As Noam Chomsky has said many times "those who call themselves "supporters of Israel" are in reality supporters of its moral degeneration".

I should have made it clear to the Guardian editors that, whatever other changes they made, I wanted to insist on the correct terminology in this instance. The amendment they've made means that the propaganda terminology has been reinforced in the public discourse, and I certainly didn't want to be responsible for that. I'm pleased that the letter was published, but still, a lesson learnt here.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


The problem with the translation issue, which you seem to overlook, is that it was not an isolated statement. It was one of numerous such statements. Moreover, if one reads the statement in the context of the speech, it could not have meant anything other than Israel's physical destruction. You might try reading the speech, which is about ongoing war over the centuries between Muslims and Christians, with Israel's destruction posited as a means to unify Muslims toward reclaiming lost lands in Europe.

Moreover, Ahmadinejad has a blog that is available online. The blog is translated by the Iranian government. That blog indicates that he meant "wipe." Moreover, the report by the official Iranian new agency indicates that the correct translation is "wipe."

As for translators, they have used various different words. However, none of the translations of the document as a whole suggests anything other than Israel's destruction.

It should also be added that, historically speaking, the land now called Iran is among the most bigoted towards Jews of any land on Earth - even by European standards. Rules requiring, among other things, Jews to remain indoors during rain falls, for fear of contaminating Muslims come to mind as an example of the insanity of that country over the course of its long history.

7:56 PM  
Blogger David Wearing said...

Thanks for your comment.

Let me quote Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, Farsi speaker and world renowed expert in Middle Eastern affairs

"Ahmadinejad ... made an analogy to Khomeini's determination and success in getting rid of the Shah's government, which Khomeini had said "must go" (az bain bayad berad). Then Ahmadinejad defined Zionism not as an Arabi-Israeli national struggle but as a Western plot to divide the world of Islam with Israel as the pivot of this plan.

The phrase he then used as I read it is "The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] from the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad)."

Ahmadinejad was not making a threat, he was quoting a saying of Khomeini and urging that pro-Palestinian activists in Iran not give up hope-- that the occupation of Jerusalem was no more a continued inevitability than had been the hegemony of the Shah's government.

Whatever this quotation from a decades-old speech of Khomeini may have meant, Ahmadinejad did not say that "Israel must be wiped off the map" with the implication that phrase has of Nazi-style extermination of a people. He said that the occupation regime over Jerusalem must be erased from the page of time.

Again, Ariel Sharon erased the occupation regime over Gaza from the page of time.

I should again underline that I personally despise everything Ahmadinejad stands for, not to mention the odious Khomeini, who had personal friends of mine killed so thoroughly that we have never recovered their bodies."

So that's Juan Cole. A man who, lets be fair, knows exactly what he's talking about.

You say that the statement was one of several. You'll have to point me in the direction of these other statements - i.e. senior Iranian leaders stating their intention to physically attack and destroy Israel as a country - because I've been following this closely the whole time and I've heard of no such thing.

In reality, Ahmadinejad has in his own words repeatedly confirmed Cole's proper translation of his original statement: i.e. that the Israeli "occupying regime" will expire because it is unsustainable, not that he intends to strike militarily to destroy it. Take this interview with Channel 4 last year:

"Q: You have said that you want Israel off the map. You really cannot accept the existence of Israel?

No we don't need it and we have a solution for the Israeli and the Zionist Regime. We told them that they should let the Palestinians express their views in a referendum so that the people can chose - we think that this is a humanitarian solution. We are fundamentally opposed to war.

Q: You have said that you want Israel off the map. You really cannot accept the existence of Israel?

We do not accept or officially recognise Israel. They are occupiers and illegitimate. But our approach is humanitarian. I ask you where is the Soviet Union now - has it been wiped out or not? It vanished without a war. Let the Palestinian people chose. It will happen

Q: But you speak with more determination. The collapse of Soviet Union was a surprise - you're saying you want Israel off the map now.

Because we analyse the problems of the region carefully and realistically, We do not deceive ourselves. We say a regime that does not have a proper philosophy of existence, which is an occupier which bullies people, and which is without culture and civilisation and which has all the powers of the region against it and only relies on its military power- this cannot survive."

[my emph added]

Or take his statement to Associated Press last year that, "Iran will not attack any country".

Or this from the BBC last month

"He also suggested that Iran would not launch any attack on Israel - America's ally in the Middle East.

"There is no need for any measures by the Iranian people" to bring about the end of the "Zionist regime" in Israel, Mr Ahmadinejad said."

Talking to Charlie Rose last year, Ahmadinejad clearly implied that Iran would accept a two state solution on the 1967 borders, when he said that Iran would accept whatever the Palestinians agree as a peace deal.

"CHARLIE ROSE: You are prepared to recognize the right of Israel to exist in its state and its '67 borders if you can reach an agreement in which there will be peace treaties among all parties? And the Palestinians will have a state, they'll have...

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (through translator): We will recognize the right of the Palestinian nation, the Palestinian nation, their rights. Whatever decision the Palestinian nation makes, we will respect. This is what we are saying. So let the Palestinian people decide what they want. Why should the U.S. government or a European government or why should us -- why should we impose something on them? Let them decide what they need and want."

As I said in my letter, it is Khamenei who runs Iran in any case, not Ahmadinejad, and Khamenei has said that "the Islamic Republic has never threatened and will never threaten any country"

Khamenei also signed off on the Grand Bargain of 2003, offered to the US, in which Iran agreed to the Arab Peace Plan, i.e. two states on the 67 borders. The US rejected the proposal.

And the bottom line of course is that even if none of the above were true, you would still have to convince us that the Iranian regime, having done so much to preserve itself over the last 3 decades, would suddenly commit collective suicide by attacking Israel.

So yours is not a very convincing story, is it matey?

By the way, that thing about Jews not being allowed out in the rain..did you get that from wikipedia ? 'Cos you do know that refers to Iran in the 16th century don't you?

9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The problem here is that Juan Cole is one source who says one thing. His, however, is not a translation of the entire speech - something the New York Times provides. Mr. Cole has given us what he thinks are the correct meaning of the words. He, however, has not translated the words in their context, where they clearly mean "wipe," as in eliminate Israel.

I might add that it seems rather strange, if you are correct, that the Iranian government thought that he meant "wipe." According to The New York Times:

But translators in Tehran who work for the president's office and the foreign ministry disagree with them. All official translations of Mr. Ahmadinejad's statement, including a description of it on his Web site (www.president.ir/eng/), refer to wiping Israel away. Sohrab Mahdavi, one of Iran's most prominent translators, and Siamak Namazi, managing director of a Tehran consulting firm, who is bilingual, both say "wipe off" or "wipe away" is more accurate than "vanish" because the Persian verb is active and transitive.

The word "map" may be a mistranslation but it is not far from the meaning nor is it far from the view of the lunatic wing of the ruling party in Iran. As The New York Times explains:

Ahmad Zeidabadi, a professor of political science in Tehran whose specialty is Iran-Israel relations, explained: "It seems that in the early days of the revolution the word 'map' was used because it appeared to be the best meaningful translation for what he said. The words 'sahneh roozgar' are metaphorical and do not refer to anything specific. Maybe it was interpreted as 'book of countries,' and the closest thing to that was a map. Since then, we have often heard 'Israel bayad az naghshe jographya mahv gardad' — Israel must be wiped off the geographical map. Hard-liners have used it in their speeches."

NY Times, June 11, 2006.

It also seems to me that if the Iranians - a people with no known love for Arab including, most particularly, Palestinian Arabs -, want to make peace with the Israelis, they know the address. They could end all the madness by making their intentions clear, something that has, by anyone's standards, not occurred. Which is to say, the Israelis, nearly to a man and woman, believe that Iran means to destroy Israel, as in wipe it off the map. If that is not, as you believe, the Iranian intentions, they might clear things up - since, as you believe, they want peace - by sending representatives to Tel Aviv to speak directly with the Israelis. That is what men of peace do.

By contrast, there have been military parades in Iran where the missiles are inscribed, "wipe Israel from the map" and where "death to Israel" has been seen on signs given out by the government to parade watches. Again, that is not a sign that the Iranians want peace.

Your anonymous poster

9:45 PM  
Blogger David Wearing said...

Thanks. You say

"It also seems to me that if the Iranians - a people with no known love for Arab including, most particularly, Palestinian Arabs -, want to make peace with the Israelis, they know the address. They could end all the madness by making their intentions clear, something that has, by anyone's standards, not occurred."

Clearly you didn't read my reply to you. So I'll repeat: the Iranians offered the US a Grand Bargain in 2003, wherein all outstanding issues between the two countries would be resolved, and that offer included acceptance of the Arab peace proposal i.e. two states on the 67 borders. The offer was rejected.

Elsewhere, you try and argue that Iranian government translators know what Ahmadinejad meant better than he does. Or that they know Iranian policy better than the Supreme Leader and the President, both of whom I quoted several times saying they do not want to attack Israel (which to you, weirdly, is irrelevant). Obviously I don't need to respond to this level of argument.

A child could tell you that any country that launches an aggressive , genocidal war on a nuclear state that is a primary ally of the US, (be it Israel, Britain or whoever) would be vaporised within hours. Either Israel would obliterate Iran, or the US would do it for them. So again, why should we believe that the Iranian regime, after 30 years of battling for its survival, now wants to commit collective suicide?

By the way, if any Israelis really do believe - in spite of all logic and the plain facts - that Iran is planning to destroy them all, then that is the fault of cynical policitians like Netanyahu who are prepared to exploit the trauma of the holocaust in order to excite public terror and paint themselves as potential national saviours. To my mind, that is every bit as disgusting as Ahmedinejad's holocaust denial. I can think of few more disrespectful if not outright contemptuous ways to treat the memory of the victims of the holocaust than to use them for cheap political advantage.

6:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Mr. Ahmadinejad has repeated his "wipe" statement on numerous occasions. So, this is not a one off. Moreover, the context of his speech clearly concerned war between Christians and Muslims, with Israel's destruction playing a role in the process.

Second, the Israelis base their concern not on such a speech or on a denial made to the Western press but what is said among the ruling class, where there is a group which does seem to believe that the destruction of Iran is an acceptable price to pay for Israel's destruction.

You may choose not to believe that people make suicidal choices. History, though, is littered with nations that have done exactly that. Think Japan and its decision to attack the US.

1:37 PM  
Blogger David Wearing said...

You think the Japanese government ordered the attack on Pearl Harbour in the certain knowledge and with full acceptance that their nation would be annihilated as a result?

This is getting pretty desperate. But you're clearly determined to stick to your view and are impervious to anything I've said.

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


My earlier reply did not post. I shall try again, this time in brief.

Japan failed to consider the implications of its actions. It thought it could scare the US off by attacking it. It knew that, in fact, a concerted effort by the US in reply would succeed. I think the historical record supports that view.

5:07 PM  
Blogger David Wearing said...

Right, so your answer to my question is no. Thanks

5:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not exactly, David.

I am saying that Japan miscalculated to the extent of taking a suicidal position, since it was obvious that the US would respond. In the case of Iran, the same thing may be occurring, except that a destroyed Israel is not, as Benny Morris noted, likely to respond and, in fact, the world is more than likely to sit idly by and allow it all to occur.

Also, there really is a group in Iran which publicly invites death. Their view is - as Ayatollah Khomeini once said -, Iran can burn so long as Islam triumphs.

5:40 PM  
Blogger David Wearing said...

Japan miscalculated the extent of suicide?

And the US would allow Israel to be destroyed?

ok, I'm going to have to pull out of this discussion. Its become very silly.

7:27 PM  
Anonymous Asa said...

On the propaganda terminology, I agree with you, but on the other hand "pro-Israeli-state" don't really scan as a term, and I can see why the subs wanted to alter it.

For the future, may I suggest "apologists for Israeli crimes", which is a bit long winded but works.

Great letter though.

2:23 PM  

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