Putting Words in Ahmadinejad's Mouth
by Virginia Tilley
28 August 2006
Johannesburg, South Africa
In this frightening mess in the Middle East, let's get one thing straight. Iran is not threatening Israel with destruction. Iran's president has not threatened any action against Israel. Over and over, we hear that Iran is clearly "committed to annihilating Israel" because the "mad" or "reckless" or "hard-line" President Ahmadinejad has repeatedly threatened to destroy Israel But every supposed quote, every supposed instance of his doing so, is wrong.
The most infamous quote, "Israel must be wiped off the map", is the most glaringly wrong. In his October 2005 speech, Mr. Ahmadinejad never used the word "map" or the term "wiped off". According to Farsi-language experts like Juan Cole and even right-wing services like MEMRI, what he actually said was "this regime that is occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time."
What did he mean? In this speech to an annual anti-Zionist conference, Mr. Ahmadinejad was being prophetic, not threatening. He was citing Imam Khomeini, who said this line in the 1980s (a period when Israel was actually selling arms to Iran, so apparently it was not viewed as so ghastly then). Mr. Ahmadinejad had just reminded his audience that the Shah's regime, the Soviet Union, and Saddam Hussein had all seemed enormously powerful and immovable, yet the first two had vanished almost beyond recall and the third now languished in prison. So, too, the "occupying regime" in Jerusalem would someday be gone. His message was, in essence, "This too shall pass."
But what about his other "threats" against Israel? The blathersphere made great hay from his supposed comment later in the same speech, "There is no doubt: the new wave of assaults in Palestine will erase the stigma in [the] countenance of the Islamic world." "Stigma" was interpreted as "Israel" and "wave of assaults" was ominous. But what he actually said was, "I have no doubt that the new movement taking place in our dear Palestine is a 'wave of morality' which is spanning the entire Islamic world and which will soon remove this stain of disgrace from the Islamic world." "Wave of morality" is not "wave of assaults." The preceding sentence had made clear that the "stain of disgrace" was the Muslim world's failure to eliminate the "occupying regime".
For months, scholars like Cole and journalists like the London Guardian's Jonathan Steele have been pointing out these mistranslations while more and more appear: for example, Mr. Ahmadinejad's comments at the Organization of Islamic Countries meeting on August 3, 2006. Radio Free Europe reported that he said "that the 'main cure' for crisis in the Middle East is the elimination of Israel." "Elimination of Israel" implies physical destruction: bombs, strafing, terror, throwing Jews into the sea. Tony Blair denounced the translated statement as ""quite shocking". But Mr. Ahmadinejad never said this. According to al-Jazeera, what he actually said was "The real cure for the conflict is the elimination of the Zionist regime, but there should be an immediate ceasefire first."
Nefarious agendas are evident in consistently translating "eliminating the occupation regime" as "destruction of Israel". "Regime" refers to governance, not populations or cities. "Zionist regime" is the government of Israel and its system of laws, which have annexed Palestinian land and hold millions of Palestinians under military occupation. Many mainstream human rights activists believe that Israel's "regime" must indeed be transformed, although they disagree how. Some hope that Israel can be redeemed by a change of philosophy and government (regime) that would allow a two-state solution. Others believe that Jewish statehood itself is inherently unjust, as it embeds racist principles into state governance, and call for its transformation into a secular democracy (change of regime). None of these ideas about regime change signifies the expulsion of Jews into the sea or the ravaging of their towns and cities. All signify profound political change, necessary to creating a just peace.
Mr. Ahmadinejad made other statements at the Organization of Islamic Countries that clearly indicated his understanding that Israel must be treated within the framework of international law. For instance, he recognized the reality of present borders when he said that "any aggressor should go back to the Lebanese international border". He recognized the authority of Israel and the role of diplomacy in observing, "The circumstances should be prepared for the return of the refugees and displaced people, and prisoners should be exchanged." He also called for a boycott: "We also propose that the Islamic nations immediately cut all their overt and covert political and economic relations with the Zionist regime." A double bushel of major Jewish peace groups, US church groups, and hordes of human rights organizations have said the same things.
A final word is due about Mr. Ahmadinejad's "Holocaust denial". Holocaust denial is a very sensitive issue in the West, where it notoriously serves anti-Semitism. Elsewhere in the world, however, fogginess about the Holocaust traces more to a sheer lack of information. One might think there is plenty of information about the Holocaust worldwide, but this is a mistake. (Lest we be snooty, Americans show the same startling insularity from general knowledge when, for example, they live to late adulthood still not grasping that US forces killed at least two million Vietnamese and believing that anyone who says so is anti-American. Most French people have not yet accepted that their army slaughtered a million Arabs in Algeria.)
Skepticism about the Holocaust narrative has started to take hold in the Middle East not because people hate Jews but because that narrative is deployed to argue that Israel has a right to "defend itself" by attacking every country in its vicinity. Middle East publics are so used to western canards legitimizing colonial or imperial takeovers that some wonder if the six-million-dead argument is just another myth or exaggerated tale. It is dismal that Mr. Ahmadinejad seems to belong to this sector.
Still, Mr. Ahmadinejad did not say what the US Subcommittee on Intelligence Policy reported that he said: "They have invented a myth that Jews were massacred and place this above God, religions and the prophets." He actually said, "In the name of the Holocaust they have created a myth and regard it to be worthier than God, religion and the prophets." This language targets the myth of the Holocaust, not the Holocaust itself – i.e., "myth" as "mystique", or what has been done with the Holocaust. Other writers, including important Jewish theologians, have criticized the "cult" or "ghost" of the Holocaust without denying that it happened. In any case, Mr. Ahmadinejad's main message has been that, if the Holocaust happened as Europe says it did, then Europe, and not the Muslim world, is responsible for it.
Why is Mr. Ahmadinejad being so systematically misquoted and demonized? Need we ask? If the world believes that Iran is preparing to attack Israel, then the US or Israel can claim justification in attacking Iran first. On that agenda, the disinformation campaign about Mr. Ahmadinejad's statements has been bonded at the hip to a second set of lies: promoting Iran's (nonexistent) nuclear weapon programme.
The current fuss about Iran's nuclear enrichment program is playing out so identically to US canards about Iraq's WMD that we must wonder why it is not meeting only roaring international derision. With multiple agendas regarding Iran – oil, US hegemony, Israel, neocon fantasies of a "new Middle East" – the Bush administration has raised a great international scare about Iran's nuclear enrichment program. (See Ray Close, Why Bush Will Choose War Against Iran.) But, plowing through Iran's facilities and records, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have found no evidence of a weapons program. The US intelligence community hasn't found anything, either.
All experts concur that, even if Iran has such a program, it is five to ten years away from having the enriched uranium necessary for an actual weapon, so pre-emptive military action now is hardly necessary. Even the recent report by the Republican-dominated Subcommittee on Intelligence Policy, which pointed out that the US government lacks the intelligence on Iran's weapons program necessary to thwart it, effectively confirms that the supposed "intelligence" is patchy and inadequate.
The Bush administration's casual neglect of North Korea's nuclear program indicates that nuclear weapons are not, in fact, the issue here. The neocons are intent on changing the regime in Iran and so have deployed their propagandists to promote the "nuclear weapons" scare just they promoted the Iraqi WMD scare. Republican rhetoric and right-wing news commentators have fallen into line, obediently repeating baseless assertions that Iran has a "nuclear weapons program," is threatening the world and especially Israel with its "nuclear weapons program," and must not be allowed to complete its "nuclear weapons program." Those who nervously point out that hard evidence is actually lacking about any Iranian "nuclear weapons program" are derided as naïve and spineless patsies.
Worse, the Bush administration has brought this snow-job to the UN, wrangling the Security Council into passing a resolution (SC 1696) demanding that Iran cease nuclear enrichment by August 31 and warning of sanctions if it doesn't. Combined with its abysmal performance regarding Israel's assault on Lebanon, the Security Council has crumbled into humiliating obsequious incompetence on this one.
Like all phantasms, the nuclear-weapons charge is hard to defeat because it cannot be entirely disproved. Maybe some Iranian scientists, in some remote underground facility, are working on nuclear weapons technology. Maybe feelers to North Korea have explored the possibilities of getting extra components. Maybe an alien spaceship once crashed in the Nevada desert. Normally, just because something can't be disproved does not make it true. But in the neocon world, possibilities are realities, and a craven press is there to click its heels and trumpet the scaremongering headlines. It doesn't take much, through endless repetition of the term "possible nuclear weapons program," for the word "possible" to drop quietly away.
Evidence is, in any case, a mere detail to the Bush administration, for which the desire for nuclear weapons is sufficient cause for a pre-emptive attack. In US debates prior to invading Iraq, people sometimes insisted that any real evidence of WMD was sorely lacking. The White House would then insist that, because Saddam Hussein "wanted" such weapons, he was likely to have them sometime in the future. Hence thought crimes, even imaginary thought crimes, are now punishable by military invasion.
Will the US really attack Iran? US generals are rightly alarmed that bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would unleash unprecedented attacks on US occupation forces in Iraq, as well as US bases in the Gulf. Iran could even block the Straits of Hormuz, which carries 40 percent of the world's oil. Spin-off terrorist militancy would skyrocket. The potential damage to international security and the world economy would be unfathomably dangerous. The Bush administration's necons seems capable of any insanity, so none of this may matter to them. But even the neocons must be taking pause since Israel failed to knock out Hizbullah using the same onslaught from the air planned for Iran.
But Israel can attack Iran, and this may be the plan. Teaming up, the two countries could compensate for each other's strategic limitations. The US has been contributing its superpower clout in the Security Council, setting the stage for sanctions, knowing Iran will not yield on its enrichment program. Having cultivated a (mistaken) international belief that Iran is threatening a direct attack on Israel, the Israeli government could then claim the right of self-defense in taking unilateral pre-emptive action to destroy the nuclear capacity of a state declared in breach of UN directives. Direct retaliation by Iran against Israel is impossible because Israel is a nuclear power (and Iran is not) and because the US security umbrella would protect Israel. Regional reaction against US targets might be curtailed by the (scant) confusion about indirect US complicity.
In that case, what we are seeing now is the US creating the international security context for Israel's unilateral strike and preparing to cover Israel's back in the aftermath.
Is this really the plan? Some evidence suggests that it is on the table. In recent years, Israel has purchased new "bunker-busting" missiles, a fleet of F-16 jets, and three latest-technology German Dolphin submarines (and ordered two more)- i.e., the appropriate weaponry for striking Iran's nuclear installations. In March 2005, the Times of London reported that Israel had constructed a mock-up of Iran's Natanz facility in the desert and was conducting practice bombing runs. In recent months, Israeli officials have openly stated that if the UN fails to take action, Israel will bomb Iran.
But Hizbullah, Iran's ally, still threatens Israel's flank. Hence attacking Hizbullah was more than a "demo" for attacking Iran, as Seymour Hersh reported; it was necessary to attacking Iran. Israel failed to crush Hizbullah, but the outcome may be better for Israel now that Security Council Resolution 1701 has made the entire international community responsible for disarming Hizbullah. If the US-sponsored 1701 effort succeeds, the attack on Iran is a go.
As Israel and the US try to make that deeply flawed plan work, we will doubtless continue to read in every forum that Iran's president – a hostile, irrational, Jew-hating, Holocaust-denying Islamo-fascist who has threatened to "wipe Israel off the map" – is demonstrably irrational enough to commit national suicide by launching a (nonexistent) nuclear weapon against Israel's mighty nuclear arsenal. The message is being hammered home: against this media-created myth, Israel must truly "defend itself."
Virginia Tilley is a professor of political science, a US citizen working in South Africa, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock (University of Michigan Press and Manchester University Press, 2005). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.