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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Excitement, hatred and belonging: why terrorists do it

A new book by Richard English suggests that killing can bring its own rewards.

Like most questions about terrorism, why large numbers of people join terrorist organisations can only be answered in political terms. However terrorism may be defined – and disputes about what counts as terrorism are largely political in their own right – we will be ­unable to understand how terrorist groups ­attract members if we don’t consider the politics of the societies in which the groups are active. But terrorism’s appeal is not ­always political for everyone involved in it. Richard English, in his wide-ranging new book, highlights some of what he calls the “inherent rewards” of terrorism gained by members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). According to some former members, involvement in PIRA operations brought adventure, excitement, celebrity in local communities and sometimes sexual opportunities.

Terrorist activity also brought other intrinsic benefits. As one Belfast ex-PIRA man put it, “You just felt deep comradeship.” Or as another said, regarding involvement in the Provos: “Now I felt I was one of the boys.” Yet another reflected tellingly: “Although I was ideologically committed to the cause, for me, in many ways, being in the IRA was almost the objective rather than the means”; conspiratorial “belonging” and “comradeship” were, in themselves, rich rewards. Friendship, belief, belonging, purpose, community and meaning. One ex-Provo described his PIRA years as “days of certainty, comradeship and absolute commitment”. A bonus was that PIRA members’ actions could gain them influence and standing in their own communities; one ex-PIRA man reflected on how he saw himself after having joined the PIRA, in the simple words: “I felt important.”

English is a professor of politics and director of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. He has studied political violence in Northern Ireland for many years and, for him, these inherent benefits are one of four ways in which terrorism can “work”. The other three comprise strategic victory in the achievement of a central or primary goal or goals; partial strategic victory, which includes determining the agenda of conflict; and tactical success, which may lead to strengthening the organisation and gaining or maintaining control over a population.

Understanding terrorism, English writes, requires taking it seriously: “treating it as the product of motivations and arguments which deserve serious, respectful engagement; and also assessing it as something worthy of honest, Popperian interrogation”. He is sanguine – surprisingly so, given the conflicts with which he is concerned – regarding the practical results such an inquiry might bring. Finding out how far and in what ways terrorism works has “practical significance” – indeed, its importance may be “huge”. As English makes clear, he “is not arguing that if we understood more fully the extent to which terrorism worked, then everything would have been fine in the post-9/11 effort to reduce terrorist violence”. He is convinced, however, that understanding how far terrorism works can greatly improve the struggle against it. “It does seem to me strongly possible that if states more fully knew how far and in what ways terrorism worked (and does not work, and why), then they would be able to respond much more effectively to it in practice.”

With all its caveats, this is a strikingly bold claim. It assumes that the failures of the post-9/11 “war on terror”, which no one can reasonably deny, were largely due to intellectual errors. But was it a lack of understanding that rendered these programmes ineffectual or counterproductive? Or was it that some of the West’s allies – Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and, more recently, Turkey – have been less than unequivocal in taking a stand against terrorism or may even have had some complicity with it? If so, it was the geopolitical commitments of Western governments that prevented them from taking effective action. Again, much of the current wave of terrorism can be traced back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Voicing a long-familiar consensual view, English criticises the US-led occupation for being “ill-planned”, leading to the destabilisation of the Iraqi security situation. But it is not clear that more forethought could have prevented this result.

If Western leaders had thought more carefully about the likely consequences of the invasion, it would probably not have been launched. With the regime and the state so closely intertwined, topping Saddam Hussein always risked creating a power vacuum. It was this that enabled al-Qaeda and then Isis and its affiliates to emerge, gain control in parts of the country and then project their operations into Europe.

Errors of analysis may have played a contributory role in this grisly fiasco. When British forces were despatched to Basra, it may have been assumed that they could implement something like the pacification that was eventually achieved in Northern Ireland. But the kinds of allies that Britain made in Belfast – and before that in the successful counterterrorist campaign in Malaya in the 1950s – did not exist in that part of Iraq. Like the overall programme of pacifying a country whose governing institutions had been dismantled abruptly, the mission was essentially unachievable. But this was not accepted by either the US administration or the British government. The invasion was based in ideological conviction rather than an empirical assessment of risks and consequences. In this case, too, high-level political decisions were far more important in unleashing terrorism than any failures in understanding it.

As has become the usual way in books on terrorism, English begins with his own definition of the phenomenon:

Terrorism involves heterogeneous violence used and threatened with a political aim; it can involve a variety of acts, of targets and actors; it possesses an important psychological dimension, producing terror or fear among a directly threatened group and also a wider implied audience in the hope of maximising political communication and achievement; it embodies the exerting and implementing of power, and the attempted redressing of power relations; it represents a subspecies of warfare, and as such can form part of a wider campaign of violent and non-violent attempts at political leverage.

This is a torturous formulation, not untypical of the academic literature on the subject. English tells us that his book is intended for readers in “all walks of life”. But the style throughout is that of a prototypical academic text, densely fortified with references to “majority scholarly opinion” and buttressed with over 50 pages of footnotes fending off critics. As a storehouse of facts and sources, the book will be a valuable resource for scholars, but its usefulness to the general reader is more doubtful.

The most interesting and informative of the book’s four main sections – on jihadism and al-Qaeda; Ireland and the IRA; Hamas and Palestinian terrorism; and Basque terrorism – is the one on Ireland, where English’s knowledge is deepest. Extensive interviews with people who had been involved in terrorist campaigns in the province led him to what is perhaps his most instructive generalisation: those who engage in and support terrorism “tend to display the same levels of rationality as do other people . . . they tend to be psychologically normal rather than abnormal . . . they are not generally characterised by mental illness or psychopathology . . . the emergence and sustenance of terrorism centrally rely on the fact that perfectly normal people at certain times consider it to be the most effective way of achieving necessary goals”. Terrorists are no more irrational than the rest of us, and there is no such thing as “the terrorist mind”. In many contexts, terrorism has functioned principally as an effective way of waging war.

As English notes, there is nothing new in the claim that terrorism is a variety of asymmetric warfare. The practice of suicide bombing has very often been analysed in cost-benefit terms and found to be highly efficient. The expenditure of resources involved is modest and the supply of bombers large; if the mission is successful the operative cannot be interrogated. The bombers gain status; their families may receive financial reward. (Religious beliefs about an afterlife are not a necessary part of suicide bombing, which has been practised by Marxist-Leninists of the Tamil Tiger movement and in Lebanon.) An enormous literature exists in which asymmetric warfare has been interpreted as demonstrating “the power of the weak”: the capacity of militarily inferior groups using unconventional methods to prevail against states with much greater firepower at their disposal. Understood in these terms, there can be no doubt that terrorism can be a rational strategy.

Yet there is a problem with understanding terrorism on this basis, and it lies in the slippery word “rational”, with which English juggles throughout the book. Terrorists are not always rational, he says; they are prone to overestimate the impact of their activities, and they make mistakes. Even so, what they do can be understood as rational strategies, and in these terms terrorism often works, if only partly. Here, English is invoking a straightforwardly instrumental view of reason. What terrorists do is rational, in this sense, if there is an intelligible connection between the ends they aim to achieve and the means they adopt to achieve them.

This means/end type of rationality typifies much terrorist activity, English maintains. But some of the ends achieved by terrorism are internal to the actual practice. “Inherent rewards from al-Qaeda terrorism might potentially include aspects of religious piety; the catharsis produced by revenge and the expression of complicatedly generated rage; and the remedying of shame and humiliation.” In this case, “hitting back  violently and punishingly at them [the US and its military allies] has offered significant rewards in terms not merely of political instrumentalism but also of valuable retaliation in itself”.

The inherent rewards of terrorism also include the expression of hatred. “The vengeful, terrorising punishment of people whom one hates, or with whom one exists in a state of deep enmity,” English writes, “might be one of the less attractive aspects of terrorist ambition. But it might also (perhaps) be one in which we find terrorists repeatedly succeeding fairly well . . .” Here, he may have understated his case. Killing cartoonists, customers queuing at a Jewish bakery in Paris and families celebrating Bastille Day in Nice will be a rational act as long as it succeeds in venting the terrorists’ hatred. Even if the operation is somehow aborted, the attempt to inflict mass death and injury may still serve as a type of therapy for those who make the attempt. If “hitting back at people whom one holds to be (literally or representatively) responsible for prior wrongs” can be rational on account of the emotional satisfaction it brings the terrorist, how can terrorism fail to work?

Clearly something has gone badly wrong here. Without mentioning the fact, or perhaps without noticing it, English has switched from one conception of rationality to another. Much of what human beings do isn’t the result of a calculation of con­sequences, but more an expression of their sense of identity. Philosophers describe this as expressive rationality, an idea they use to explain why voting in circumstances where you know your vote can make no practical difference can still be in accordance with reason. But is expressive rationality beyond rational criticism? In order to understand terrorism in Israel-Palestine, Ireland and Spain, English tells us, we need to understand the national context in which the terrorists act. This doesn’t imply “a comfortable acceptance of any single national narrative”, given that various terrorist groups “have done much to open such narratives to a very brutal interrogation”.

But is the terrorist narrative exempt from questioning? The reader might think so, as there is nothing in English’s account that fundamentally challenges the narrative of Hamas, for example. There is no discussion of the endorsement in the Hamas Charter of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and no examination of the influence on Hamas’s policies of the delusional world-view that this infamous anti-Semitic forgery articulates. If this is a Popperian interrogation of terrorism, it falls short of the impartial critical rationalism that Karl Popper recommended.

An analysis of the intrinsic rewards of terrorism may be useful in considering the outbreak of Isis-affiliated ­terrorism in Europe. In contrast to that of the IRA, including its ultra-violent Provisional wing, this cannot easily be understood in terms of instrumental rationality. Even when compared with its predecessor al-Qaeda, Isis has been notable for making very few concrete demands. No doubt the present outbreak is partly a reaction to the jihadist group losing ground in Iraq and Syria. But as English suggests, we need to ask for whom terrorism works, and why. When we do this in relation to Isis, the answers we receive are not reassuring.

Nothing in human conflict is entirely new. There are some clear affinities between anarchist terrorist attacks around the end of the 19th century and jihadist “spectaculars” at the start of the 20th. However, there are also certain discomforting differences. Anarchists at that time made public officials, not ordinary civilians, their primary targets; they attacked state power rather than an entire society; and they never acquired a mass base of supporters and sympathisers. Bestowing identity and significance on dislocated individuals and enabling them to discharge their resentment against a hated way of life, terrorism by Isis is of another kind. Against the background of deep divisions in European societies, these rewards could become an increasingly powerful source of the group’s appeal.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is “The Soul of the Marionette: a Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom” (Allen Lane)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue