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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Don't bet on James Brokenshire saving devolution in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland secretary's decision to extend talks makes a settlement less, not more, likely. 

The deadline for the parties at Stormont to form a new executive has passed without an agreement. Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire has – as was inevitable – taken the least difficult option and opened a “short window of opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”.

Talks have been extended for a “short few weeks” – Brokenshire’s interpretation of the “reasonable period” allowed after the initial three weeks after the election elapsed. Despite his earlier warnings, there will be no snap election (for which he conceded there was “no appetite”).

Unhelpful though the tortured semantics of “a short few weeks” are, we can assume that new negotiations may well as last as long as the impending Commons recess, which begins on Thursday and ends on April 11th – after which, Brokenshire said, he will bring forward legislation to set regional rates in the absence of an executive. This, though not quite direct rule, would be the first step in that direction.  

So what changes now? Politically speaking and in the immediate term, not a great deal. For all the excited and frankly wishful chatter about the two parties approaching the final talks afresh after Martin McGuinness’ funeral last week, Sinn Fein and the DUP remain poles apart.  

The former declared talks to have failed a full day before the deadline, and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has since said there has been “no substantive progress” on the key issues at hand – particularly the DUP’s “minimalist” approach on the Irish language and marriage equality. Seemingly unassailable differences remain on a new Bill of Rights and measures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles. As such, both Adams and Sinn Fein's new leader Michelle O’Neill continue to stress their election lines: equality, respect, integrity, and, perhaps most tellingly, “no return to the status quo”.

Brokenshire clearly recognises that there will be no new executive without some movement on these issues: yesterday he referred to the talks to come as an “opportunity to resolve outstanding issues”. He is right to do so: Sinn Fein’s demands are, for the most part, as yet unimplemented provisions from the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements of 2014 and 2015. 

But will the DUP budge? It appears unlikely at first glance. Sinn Fein’s approach to negotiations has only heightened tensions between the would-be coalition partners, whose relationship has regressed to the openly adversarial (DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday expressly blamed Sinn Fein for the collapse in talks).

There looks to be little appetite for compromise on Sinn Fein’s headline demands. The DUP’s opposition to historical prosecutions of Troubles veterans is well-publicised, and appears to be aligned with UK government thinking.

Nor does there appear to have been any real shift in the party’s position on legal recognition for the Irish language. Speaking on the BBC’s World at One yesterday afternoon, Ian Paisley Jr stressed in pretty woolly terms to the DUP’s commitment to “promoting minority languages”, which, however true, is not the commitment to an Irish language act that Sinn Fein are asking for. That the spirit of Paisley’s remarks was essentially the same as his leader’s contrarian take on the issue – she said, provocatively, that there was much a need for a Polish language act as an Irish language act – is not a promising sign.

The continuing fallout from the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that triggered last month’s election also complicates matters. Though the London press have already relegated this public spending scandal to the footnotes, the full ramifications are yet to be seen. A full list of claimants was last week published by the Belfast News Letter, and the longer the process of negotiation and renegotiation drags on, the clearer the answer to the question of who exactly benefited from the scheme’s mismanagement becomes.

Though Foster's penance in the wake of the DUP’s calamitous election performance has gone some way to rehabilitating her public image, the taint of corruption could retoxify the brand. It isn’t difficult to see why veteran Stormont horse-traders like Reg Empey, the former leader of the UUP, believe an executive may well be unachievable until the inquiry into "cash for ash" delivers its ruling – a process which could take a year.

The political impasse, then, looks as insoluble as ever. Leaders of smaller parties such as the non-sectarian Alliance have blamed Brokenshire for the startling fact that there were no roundtable talks at any point during the past three weeks. The Northern Ireland secretary’s decision to extend talks for another fortnight could bury power-sharing as we know it for good. From Wednesday, the civil service will take control of the province’s budget, as per Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act. The permanent secretary of the Department for Finance will immediately have access to just 75 per cent of available funds, and, if the situation persists, 95 per cent.

In the worst case scenario, this means cuts could well come hard and fast. All the better for Sinn Fein - as I wrote earlier this month, the imposition of austerity and Brexit from London offers an opportunity to parlay short-term pain into long-term political gain. Meanwhile, Brexit secretary David Davis has admitted that Northern Ireland would automatically rejoin the EU in the event of a border poll. The path to a united Ireland via direct rule looks clearer than ever before.

Unionists are not blind to this existential risk – and here Brokenshire’s bizarre insistence that he was ready to call Northern Ireland’s third election in twelve months exposes his political naivety. He maintains there is “little public appetite” for a new poll. He might be right here, but that doesn’t mean a revanchist DUP would refuse the opportunity, if it arose, to go back to a unionist electorate it believes have taken frit at Sinn Fein’s post-election manoeuvring. Some in the party are keen to do so, if only to put to bed what they deem to be premature and melodramatic talk of imminent Irish unity.

Another election would suit Sinn Fein’s long game. The more dysfunctional and unworkable devolved politics in the North, the stronger the logic for a quick transition to a united Ireland in the EU. Many in the Northern Irish political establishment deem Brokenshire a lightweight - as do some in his own party. That he seems not to have realised that threatening a new election wasn’t much of a threat at all – or foreseen this avoidable mess - does nothing to dispel that notion. 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.