Iran Watch: Does Ahmadinejad really want to "wipe Israel off the map"?

Iran Watch, part 4.

Iran Watch, part 4.

I guess I should be flattered. On Tuesday night, at 11:18pm, when some of us were spending time with our families, and others were tucked up in bed, the Blair biographer (hagiographer?) John Rentoul was in front of his computer composing a blogpost trying to ridicule my views about Iran, Israel and nuclear weapons. You see, I had the temerity to dare mention that Israel happens to have nukes and Iran doesn't. Silly me. (Incidentally, I'm going to give Rentoul the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn't mean to deliberately try and link me to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the eyes of his readers with his photo of the latter, the use of my name and then the headline "Spot the difference". But if he did, subtle it wasn't and shame on him.)

In a classic "compliment dressed up as an insult", Rentoul referred to me in his opening paragraph as "one of the more thoughtful of the appeasement faction, returning to the scene of his folly". I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

First, if I'd called Iraq as spectactularly badly as Rentoul did, I'd be careful about uttering the word "folly".

Second, if I was a writer who constantly railed against the use of cliché, I'd be wary of invoking lazy Second World War analogies.

I mean, "appeasement"? Really? I'm opposed to nuclear-armed Israel pre-emptively and illegally attacking a nuclear-weapons-free Iran so that makes me an appeaser? I guess Shirin Ebadi, Iran's leading, Nobel-Prize-winning dissident, who also opposes military action against the Islamic Republic, is also an appeaser then. I guess Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, who has described an attack on Iran as "a stupid idea" is an appeaser too. Then there's Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the United States, who says an Israeli attack on Iran would be "destabilising". He's an appeaser too, John? And how about well-known appeaser Barack Obama, who decried "loose talk of war" from the hawks in his speech to Aipac earlier this week? Are we all appeasers?

Rentoul is more of a chickenhawk than a hawk; a laptop bombardier who demands the west bomb and invade Middle East countries on spurious grounds. Civilian casualties don't seem to figure in his calculations. In fact, for the past nine years, Rentoul has obsessively tried to downplay and discredit the various peer-reviewed studies that document how many hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children died in Iraq as a result of the war that he supported - and still supports.

But let's turn to the subject of his latest blogpost, headlined "Spot the difference". Rentoul repeats his earlier assertion on Twitter that

the Iranian President said that Israel must be wiped from the pages of history.

To be fair to the Independent on Sunday columnist, countless politicians and pundits on left and right have bought into this nonsense. The inconvenient truth - for them - is that the Iranian president, despite being an odious, obnoxious and bombastic individual, never used these words.

See Guardian columnist Jonathan Steele's debunking of this myth here and here. See this handy Wikipedia page for other references and further evidence.

And here's Farsi-speaker Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, one of America's leading academic experts on Iran, Iranians and Shia Islam, writing on his blog in 2006:

[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.

When I debated this issue with him on Twitter last month, the flailing, Farsi-less Rentoul sent me a link to a Washington Post "fact-check"-style article, entitled: "Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be 'wiped off the map'?" I'm not sure what his reasoning was, given the Post piece concludes:

"Wipe off the map," in other words, has become easy shorthand for expressing revulsion at Iran's anti-Israeli foreign policy. . . But we're going to award a Pinocchio to everyone -- including ourselves -- who has blithely repeated the phrase without putting it into context.

And the piece also cited Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and no apologist for Ahmadinejad, pointing out how the Iranian regime's "goal is not the military destruction of the Jewish state but 'the defeat of Zionist ideology and the dissolution of Israel through a 'popular referendum.'"

So, what was Rentoul's response to being corrected and educated on a subject about which he clearly knows little? An apology? Some sheepishness or humility? Nope. None. He writes on his blog:

In other words, [Ahmadinejad] said what everyone thinks he said.

Er, no, John, he didn't. That's the whole point! Read in context, and with the correct translation, Ahmadinejad's comments mean something quite different. They relate to occupation, regime change and a one-state solution for the inhabitants of Palestine, rather than a military attack and a new Holocaust (which, incidentally, would also kill one million Arab Muslim residents of Israel - why would the Iranians want to do that??). Rentoul is one of the brightest columnists around so I can't understand why he has such difficulty understanding this rather simple point. Perhaps, just perhaps, he is being deliberately disingenuous in his repetition of the false translation and his insistence on its "genocidal" connotations. After all, it's the best argument the hawks have - they can't be allowed to have nukes, or trusted with uranium, because they're genocidal maniacs!

As one Canadian academic cited by the Wikipedia article succintly put it:

Ahmadinejad was quoting the Ayatollah Khomeini in the specific speech under discussion: what he said was that "the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time." No state action is envisaged in this lament; it denotes a spiritual wish, whereas the erroneous translation - "wipe Israel off the map" - suggests a military threat. There is a huge chasm between the correct and the incorrect translations. The notion that Iran can "wipe out" U.S.-backed, nuclear-armed Israel is ludicrous.

Indeed. The point is this: Rentoul was caught out misquoting the Iranian president for self-serving, fear-mongering purposes. Instead of acknowleding his error, he then claimed that the actual translation means the same thing as his original misquote - and then carries on using the original mistranslation to beat the drum for war against Iran, despite the fact that his pants are on fire and he knows they're on fire.

What's so pathetic about this particular "gotcha" quote is that it was delivered seven years ago and Ahmadinejad has been asked about it, and clarified it, several times in the intervening period. In a January 2006 news conference, he said:

There is no new policy, they created a lot of hue and cry over that. It is clear what we say: Let the Palestinians participate in free elections and they will say what they want.

In a September 2008 interview, the Iranian president was asked: "If the Palestinian leaders agree to a two-state solution, could Iran live with an Israeli state?" To which he replied:

If they [the Palestinians] want to keep the Zionists, they can stay ... Whatever the people decide, we will respect it. I mean, it's very much in correspondence with our proposal to allow Palestinian people to decide through free referendums

Why is it that journalists like Rentoul can't bring themselves to mention such quotes that don't fit their "he's a genocidal maniac" narrative? Is it wilful ignorance? Or their hawkish agenda? Or a bit of both?

Let me finish by dealing with Rentoul's brief, sarcastic critique of my own original blogpost:

Today, [Hasan] returns to the subject, asking: "What about Israel's nukes?"

I'll tell him about Israel's nukes. They're not anyone's favourite thing. But there is a difference between the governments of Israel and Iran. One of them has said that the other "must vanish from the page of time".

I wonder if Hasan can guess which one?

Well, I've dealt with the "vanish from the page of time" stuff, so let me, in a tribute to Rentoul's "Spot the difference" headline, ask him a few questions and get him to "spot the difference" between Iran and Israel (since Rentoul is so intent on presenting the latter as doveish and the former as hawkish):

1) Which country in the Middle East has a secret stash of 100-200 nuclear warheads? Iran or Israel?

2) Which country in the Middle East has been the subject of more than 60 critical UN Security Council resolutions? Iran or Israel?

3) Which country invaded and occupied one of its neighbours between 1978 and 2000 and then bombed it again in 2006? Iran or Israel?

4) Which country continues to illegally occupy Syrian and Palestinian land? Iran or Israel?

5) Which country in the Middle East refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or allow IAEA inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities? Iran or Israel?

6) Which country in the Middle East has been accused of providing "expertise and technology that was central to [apartheid] South Africa's development of its nuclear bombs"? Iran or Israel?

7) Which country in the Middle East is currently, actively, openly planning an illegal, pre-emptive air attack on another? Iran or Israel?

I await Rentoul's answers.

Oh and on a final, related note, before you shout (a la "Mark Wallace" in the comments to my last blogpost) "Israel is a democracy, Iran isn't!", let me just say that (a) I agree Israel (inside the Green Line) is much more democratic than Iran, but (b) it's irrelevant to the debate over the permissibility of nuclear weapons, given the fact that the only country in history to actually use nuclear weapons was, er, a democracy: the United States, in 1945.

UPDATE:

Yet another formal and official disavowal (denial?) of the "wipe them off the map" line, this time from Mohammad Javad Larijani, "a member of a powerful political clan in Iran and an adviser to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei", speaking to CNN's Christiane Amanpour on 15 March:

Larijani sought to downplay the significance of comments attributed to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a few years ago suggesting that Israel should be wiped off the map.

He said the comments were "definitely not" meant in a military sense and that such an approach was not "a policy of Iran."

Case closed.

UPDATE 2:

I know I said "case closed" but I couldn't help but add another update to this blogpost, noting the comments made by Dan Meridor, Israel's minister of intelligence and atomic energy and deputy prime minister, in an interview with Al Jazeera on 16 April 2012:

Al Jazeera's Teymoor Nabili talks to Dan Meridor, Israel's minister of intelligence and atomic energy and deputy prime minister, about this and questions him over Israeli politicians' claims that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, said Iran would 'wipe Israel out'.

"They [Iranian leaders] all come basically ideologically, religiously with the statement that Israel is an unnatural creature, it will not survive," Meridor says. "They didn't say 'we'll wipe it out', you are right, but 'it will not survive, it is a cancerous tumour, it should be removed'. They repeatedly said 'Israel is not legitimate, it should not exist'."

Thanks for the clarification, Dan!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?