Beyond the Prism: Excusing Iranian rhetoric

It is widely believed that Ahmadinejad is in the habit of making offensive statements against Israel, and that even his most offensive statement was mistranslated.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer)
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Stringer)
Concerning Iranian rhetoric, it seems that even six years after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s original statement about wiping Israel off the map, there are a lot of misunderstandings, which are either the result of rationalization or – in the worst cases – are based on political calculations.
The two most widespread ways of minimizing the Iranian threat are by stating that the Iranian regime is rational, a claim I discussed in this column two months ago, or by arguing that Ahmadinejad never said that Israel has to be wiped off the map.
Last week, once again, Iranian rhetoric toward Israel took center stage after Al Jazeera’s Teymoor Nabili interviewed Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor on April 14. The interview was originally titled, and is still titled as such on Al Jazeera’s YouTube channel, “The danger comes from Iran,” which describes the essence of the 25-minute interview well. Later the website of Al Jazeera gave the interview the more sensational title, “Dan Meridor: We misquoted Ahmadinejad.”
Here is the contentious section of the interview on which the title suggesting an admission was based:
Nabili: As we know, Ahmadinejad didn’t say that he plans to exterminate Israel, nor did he say that Iran policy is to exterminate Israel.
Ahmadinejad’s position and Iran’s position always has been, and they’ve made this – they’ve said this as many times as Ahmadinejad has criticized Israel, he has said as many times that he has no plans to attack Israel. He simply said that if you hold a referendum in this part of the world with everybody who lives here, he will accept the outcome of that referendum.
Meridor: Well, I have to disagree, with all due respect. You speak of Ahmadinejad. I speak of Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani, Shamkhani. I give the names of all these people.
They all come, basically ideologically, religiously, with the statement that Israel is an unnatural creature, it will not survive. They didn’t say, “We’ll wipe it out,” you’re right. But “It will not survive; it is a cancerous tumor that should be removed,” was said just two weeks ago again.
AHMADINEJAD’S 2005 statement, quoting Ayatollah Khomeini that Israel “must be erased from the page of time” was translated by the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcaster (IRIB) as “must be wiped off the map.” For the Iranians themselves, the meaning of the phrase was never in question.
A statement from 2008 by Ahmadinejad is still displayed on his official English language website: “O dear Imam (Khomeini)! You said the Zionist Regime that is a usurper and illegitimate regime and a cancerous tumor should be wiped off the map. I should say that your illuminating remark and cause is going to come true today.
The Zionist Regime has lost its existence philosophy... the Zionist regime faces a complete dead end and under God’s grace your wish will soon be materialized and the corrupt element will be wiped off the map.”
The call to “wipe Israel off the map” has also appeared on many public displays in Iran, including on missiles and vehicles at Iranian military parades and on official government buildings. In a 2004 military parade, in particular, the Iranians themselves translated their main anti-Israel slogan on the side of a Shehab- 3 missile as “Israel must be wiped off the map.”
Therefore there is no reason to dispute the interpretation of the original Ahmadinejad statement, unless a Western pundit wants to debate the translation department of the Iranian military.
Thus, based on all this, US President Barack Obama cannot be accused of having made a mistake when he told the UN General Assembly in 2011 that “Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map.”
The English idiom used by the Iranian translators in 2005 was carried later by Western media and became the symbol of Iranian anti-Israel rhetoric, even though many similar statements have been made by the entire Iranian leadership.
Meridor gave many examples for similar such statements, and also noted that this rhetoric is accompanied by deeds as well, such as uranium enrichment and missile development.
Despite Meridor’s firm objections to the interviewer’s positions regarding the Iranian threat and rhetoric, his acknowledgment that Ahmadinejad didn’t literally say “wipe Israel off the map” was taken out of context, and was quickly presented both in Israel and abroad as an important new development, as it was thought to be an admission by the Israeli government.
The topic was subsequently raised by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview with Defense Minister Ehud Barak on April 20.
Amanpour: One of the things that people always ask me and makes them worried for Israel is about what President Ahmadinejad was said to have said a few years ago about “wiping Israel off the face of the map.” Many Iranian officials who I’ve interviewed, including just now recently, have said that it’s not what he said nor is it the policy of the Iranian government to have any military attack on Israel. Your own minister, Dan Meridor, said that yes, that is not what Ahmadinejad said. He didn’t say “wipe Israel off the face of the map.” Do you accept that or you still believe that Iran has a military design on you? Barak: I think we are focusing too much on the nuances of rhetoric rather than on the content.Amanpour: But this is really important, everybody talks about this.Barak: I’ll tell you exactly what they have said. He said and others said in public many times that the “Zionist entity” – it’s a code name for Israel – is something unnatural in the Middle East and should be removed or destroyed. That’s what he said.
AT THE end of last month, Hans Blix, former chief UN weapons inspector, was interviewed on the same Al Jazeera program that interviewed Meridor and was asked about the allegations according to which Iran wants to wipe Israel off the face of the map. Blix said, “Mr.
Ahmadinejad has made statements that are aggressive and which I certainly would not condone, and I think they are unwise on the part of Iran. But I also understand that the formulation as you quote him is not exact, and that in Farsi it was a little different and perhaps a little less threatening. Nevertheless, it was not wise to make it and it has increased the tension.”
It is widely believed that Ahmadinejad is in the habit of making offensive statements against Israel, and that even his most offensive statement was mistranslated. This is the reason the Meridor interview received so much attention – because it was perceived not only as a confirmation of these preconceptions but also as an admission of guilt by Israel.
The writer is project coordinator at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.