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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories