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.

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Nicola Sturgeon's half-hearted "reset" is not enough to win back voters to the SNP

Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests the First Minister is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s concerns.

In Scots law, under a charge of robbery, theft, breach of trust, embezzlement, falsehood, fraud or wilful imposition, the accused may be convicted of "reset". It’s not clear which of these particular terms Nicola Sturgeon had in mind this week when she used that word to describe her reformed plans for a second independence referendum. Fraud seems a little too strong. Breach of trust or wilful imposition are perhaps closer to the mark.

It’s been many, many years since the SNP has seemed this unsure of its footing. Fair enough: who in politics isn’t, these days? But the slow-motion car crash that is Scotland’s governing party deserves a prime-time slot all of its own. "The SNP has squandered what was an extraordinarily strong position," says a thoughtful observer from the opposition benches.

If Sturgeon’s authority hasn’t gone – and she continues to rule Scotland’s most popular mainstream party, both at Holyrood and Westminster – it has undeniably taken a shellacking. The aura of invincibility that surrounded the First Minister’s early years in power is no more, both within and without the SNP. "What struck me as she announced her 'reset' was that a woman who was often listened to in respectful silence in the past found herself being shouted at by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories," says a source. "There was giggling and mockery, which is new. She seemed diminished."

My own judgement is that the reset proposal, which amounts to little more than extending the deadline for a second indyref by six months to a year, will do almost nothing to woo back the half-million voters who deserted the Nats between the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In my experience, these people don’t want the referendum delayed for six months, they want it off the table. They also want the SNP to shut up about it, and they want to see the public services and the economy given full attention. That is the challenge they have set the First Minister in the four years left of this Holyrood parliament. In an enlightening article in the Guardian this week, Severin Carrell quotes voters from the "Tartan Tory" areas that recently unseated Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson. "Fed up with the SNP, simple as."

Fed up. Sturgeon’s greatest error – a charge levelled by internal critics – was to force and win a vote at Holyrood on the holding of another referendum, after the Brexit decision but before Article 50 was triggered. In the minds of voters already worried about leaving the EU and looking for what we might call strong and stable leadership, this merely confirmed the SNP’s monomania: that it saw literally everything as a pretext for independence. The step looked cynical, it looked rushed, it looked, well, desperate.

To be fair to the First Minister, she was playing a double game. Obviously, she supports breaking up the UK and needs to continually feed the beast that is the separatist movement, but she also hoped the looming threat of another referendum would give her leverage as the UK negotiated Brexit, perhaps to secure a distinct deal of some kind for Scotland. She was wrong. "Theresa May would show up for meetings with the various leaders of the UK’s nations, read from a script and then refuse to take questions," says an SNP insider. "The whole thing has been a shambles. The British government just isn’t interested."

This deliberate mutual misunderstanding is a problem not just for the SNP, but for the smooth running of the UK. Pre-devolution, a deal such as that struck with the DUP would have been discussed in Cabinet where powerful Scottish and Welsh secretaries would demand and usually emerge with some goodies for back home. Now, each nation is run by a different tribe, the relationships are oppositional and antagonistic, and no side wants to make things easier for the other. Britain has stopped talking to itself, and stopped trading with itself. We have spiralled off into our own mini-cultures, which often bear little resemblance to each other.

Ultimately, though, Sturgeon looks like the author of her own misfortune. Her tone in Holyrood as she announced the ‘reset’ was unapologetic and belligerent. There was no real humility or admission of error, and no sense that an indyref was in any way off the table. Election campaigners report that the doorstep feedback suggests she is now seen as aloof, with little interest in the average voter’s day-to-day concerns or in listening to them. Her team seem unable or unwilling to absorb this. "They’re still pushing far too hard," says one Tory source. "The only way I can make sense of it is that they’re playing it like a poker hand. They’ve come too far and feel they have no choice but to go all-in. But it’s a losing hand."

There are only two routes I can see that might, perhaps, make something of a difference. The first is a comprehensive reshuffle that brings some of the smarter, younger MSPs into the government. Many of them, as newcomers to the cause, speak differently about independence and their reasons for joining the SNP than do the generation of Sturgeon, Salmond, John Swinney and Mike Russell.

The second is to return to the debate about devo max or federalism. Again, in conversation with the new generation of Nats you are more likely to discuss these options. A number of them are technocrats who have a view of the way Scotland should be governed. They might see independence as the best way to achieve this, but they are also open to a looser relationship within the UK, one that might involve greater powers around taxation, spending and borrowing. With every UK region outside London running a chunky deficit, Scotland could set its own deficit-reduction target and develop a plan to get there. Not only would that be good for the UK economy, it would also allow the SNP to demonstrate that a separate state could work - and indeed, would work.

In short, the SNP will not whine its way to independence. Its best option now is to do what the Scottish people are asking it to do: make a better job of running the place, and stop talking about independence for a while. First, though, that requires the party to listen.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

0800 7318496