On October 26 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, newly elected President Of Iran, made a speech at the distastefully named ‘World Without Zionism’ conference held by the Islamic Student Associations in the Ministry Of The Interior conference hall in Tehran, also attended by Islamic Jihad and Hamas. In it he made the following remarks in Farsi:
“Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad.”
IRIB News, an English-language subsidiary of the state-controlled Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), translated the essential content of this sentence as ‘Israel must be wiped off the map’ and filed a story on Ahmadinejad’s speech to the World Without Zionism conference in Asia, entitled: Ahmadinejad: Israel must be wiped off the map.
Western and Israeli leaders, taking the official translation at face value, expressed disgust at Ahmadiniejad’s reported remarks, stating them as proof of Iranian intention to immediately destroy Israel as soon as the Iranian nuclear program reached weapons readiness.
But Ahmadinejad was not making any such declaration. Indeed his Farsi did not even include the words ‘Israel’ or ‘map’. What he actually said would be better translated as ‘the regime occupying Jerusalem must be expunged from the world stage’ with the meaning being ‘the occupation of Palestine must be bought to an end and be replaced by a government embodying the aspirations of the Palestinian people’.
The error in translation lies in the choice of English idiom for the Farsi phrase. The English idiom, ‘wiped off the map’ conveys immediate destruction by overwhelming and irresistible force, whereas the Farsi phrase conveys ‘wiping away of an offensive stain or disgrace’.
The Farsi used by Ahmadinejad is neither passive nor peaceful. But neither does it convey immediate action or escalation of force. In short, the degree of aggression conveyed for the Farsi is far lower than the selected English idiomatic translation.
Ironically, it was the Iranian News Agency‘s own poor translation, later withdrawn and clarified, that gave the Western and Israeli governments their free kick against Ahmedinejad. And they didn’t stop kicking after their internal translators no doubt had properly translated and analysed the speech. It was a propaganda gift from IRIB itself. A golden opportunity.
Correcting such errors in the public mind are near impossible in the face of Western progaganda onslaught, but the truth is available to whomever cares to look. Jonahan Steele of The Guardian put together a good piece on the translation issues, noting that the Israeli running the Middle East Media Reporting Institute (MEMRI) supports a doveish translation of the remarks, as did The BBC, which also originally gave an incorrect translation ‘wiped off the map’ under time pressure to report the remarks. Steele describes the BBC’s translator’s difficultly with the passage, which is not straight forward.
Actually Reading The Speech For a Change
Disputing over the correct translation of a single difficult phrase in Ahmadinejad’s speech is no substitute for actually reading the whole of what he said, or at least a large enough chunk of it provide a proper and full context and allowing an inductive interpretation to emerge.
The speech itself was given in the context of a particular development in Palestinian/Israeli international relations which provides the key to Ahmadinejad’s meaning. Furthermore, the overall theme of the speech was ‘endurance despite appearances to the contrary’ not ‘destroy the enemy’ and, tellingly, predictions of Khomeini in regard to the collapse of these regimes are adduced by Ahmadinejad, giving an immediate context to what Ahmadinejad meant by ‘wipe off the map’
The Palestinian issue that Ahmadinejad referred to was the 2005 withdrawal of Israel from the Gaza strip which Ahmadinejad portrayed as a trick invented by Israel and the United States designed to fool the world community into believing that a true Palestinian homeland had been established and that therefore Palestinian struggle was no longer required.
Recently they [the Israelis] tried a new trick. They want to show the evacuation from the Gaza strip, which was imposed on them by Palestinians, as a final victory for the Palestinians and end the issue of Palestine with the excuse of establishing a Palestinian government next to themselves. Today, they want to involve Palestinians with mischief and trick them into fighting with one another over political positions so that they would drop the issue of Palestine.
They want to convince some of the Islamic countries that, since they evacuated the Gaza strip with good intentions, the legitimacy of their corrupt regime should be recognized. I hope Palestinian groups and people are aware of this trick.
In relation to his overall theme of ‘endurance despite appearances to the contrary’, Ahmadinejad gave two examples of other regimes which had been wiped off the map. These were the regimes of the Shah Of Iran and of Saddam Hussein
Of The Shah, Ahmadinejad said:
We had a hostile regime in this country which was undemocratic, armed to the teeth and, with SAVAK, its security apparatus of SAVAK [the intelligence bureau of the Shah of Iran’s government] watched everyone. An environment of terror existed. When our dear Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder the Iranian revolution] said that the regime must be removed, many of those who claimed to be politically well-informed said it was not possible.
Of Saddam Hussein, Ahmedinijad said:
Who could believe that one day we could witness the collapse of the Eastern Empire? But we have seen its fall during our lives and it collapsed in such a way that we have to refer to libraries because no trace of it is left. Imam [Khomeini] said Saddam must go and he said he would grow weaker than anyone could imagine. Now you see the man who spoke with such arrogance ten years ago that one would have thought he was immortal, is being tried in his own country in handcuffs and shackles by those who he believed supported him and with whose backing he committed his crimes.
The two examples that Ahmadinejad provided of regimes that were wiped off the map were examples of seemingly solid, strong, seemingly impossible to defeat even immortal regimes that did regardless collapse. Both of these regimes were ones, like Israel, that Khomeine said must go or be removed and which Khomeini predicted would grow weaker.
To the core of the issue about what Ahmadinejad meant, the regime of the Shah was not wiped off the map by external invasion, but rather by popular uprising of the local population which is precisely what Ahmadinejad exhorts the Palestinians to do.
So, following Ahmadinejad, the comparison with The United States and Israel is exact. Khomeini said these regimes must pass away from the world stage and so, trusting in his wisdom, by struggle and endurance they will, despite their seeming strength and dominance.
Ahemadinejad’s formulation is They say it is not possible to have a world without the United States and Zionism but, to paraphrase, Khomeini said that the regimes of The Shah and Saddam would pass away and they did, Our dear Imam [also] said that the occupying regime [Israel] must be wiped off the map and so it will be.
Ahmadinejad then clarified what he meant by the wiping away of the occupying regime, which was the replacement of an illegitimate occupier by a government embodying the democratic aspirations of the Palestinian people
The issue of Palestine is not over at all. It will be over the day a Palestinian government, which belongs to the Palestinian people, comes to power; the day that all refugees return to their homes; a democratic government elected by the people comes to power. Of course those who have come from far away to plunder this land have no right to choose for this nation.
This is why when pressed directly on the meaning of his remarks by a Washington Post reporter, Ahmadinejad continually stated that the Palestinian people had a right to democratic self-determination. What appeared to his American interlocutor as evasion on the subject of ‘wipe off the map’ was merely a restatement by Ahmadinejad of what he clearly said in the first place.
Here is an excerpt:
Your suggestion is to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth?
Our suggestion is very clear:…Let the Palestinian people decide their fate in a free and fair referendum, and the result, whatever it is, should be accepted…The people with no roots there are now ruling the land.
You’ve been quoted as saying that Israel should be wiped off the face of the Earth. Is that your belief?
What I have said has made my position clear. If we look at a map of the Middle East from 70 years ago…
So, the answer is yes, you do believe that it should be wiped off the face of the Earth?
Are you asking me yes or no? Is this a test? Do you respect the right to self-determination for the Palestinian nation? Yes or no? Is Palestine, as a nation, considered a nation with the right to live under humane conditions or not? Let’s allow those rights to be enforced for these 5 million displaced people.
…an inductive reading of Ahmadinejad’s speech shows that he was calling for the world to recognise a full democratic aspiration for the Palestinian people and specifically to reject the assertion by Israel that their withdrawal from the Gaza Strip accomplished the goal of the establishment of a Palestinian.
… the translation error lies in choosing an English idiom conveying escalation of force and intention for immediate aggression. None of this is present in the Farsi.
… Ahmadinejad made plain that the term wiped off the map encompasses collapse via popular uprising as shown by his example of the Shah.
…’wipe off the map’ is a poor translation of Amhedinjad’s words. They are better translated as ‘the regime occupying Jerusalem must be expunged from the world stage’. While the sentiment conveys action and does not preclude struggle or aggression, it does not convey immediate invasion, escalation of force or immediate intention to destroy
That sentiment is summarized in the following line from his speech:
Those who are sitting in closed rooms cannot decide for the Islamic nation and cannot allow this historical enemy to exist in the heart of the Islamic world
A Contrary View
In 2008, Joshua Teitelbaum of the Jerusalem Centre For Public Affairs put together a compelling document entitled “WHAT IRANIAN LEADERS REALLY SAY ABOUT DOING AWAY WITH ISRAEL: A REFUTATION OF THE CAMPAIGN TO EXCUSE
AHMADINEJAD’S INCITEMENT TO GENOCIDE”
The document assembles statements of leaders of the Iranian Islamic regime which make it quite clear that Iran supports the physical destruction of Israel.
What is not clear is whether Ahmadinejad’s speech of Oct 2006 was a declaration of that intent.
Titlebaum’s document applies Amadinejad’s words to the destruction of Israel by various means including the following:
– The editorial comment in the Iranian newspaper Resalat two days later which reminded its readers that Muslim nations must actively prepare for a great war with Israel to be launched some time in the near future.
– The April 2005 statements of Ayatollah Nurdi Hamadani who stated that the the prophetic and therefore necessary precondition for the return of the apocalyptic Shiite Hidden Imam was the destruction of Israel.
– The inscription of the phrase ‘Israel must be uprooted and wiped off the pages of history’ on Iran’s Shahab 3 long-rage missiles, capable of reaching Israel from Iran, during military parades.
– Former Iranian President Rafsanjani made the statement in December 2000 that a single atomic bomb would destroy Israel while only causing minor damage to the Islamic world as a whole. (From the Islamic perspective, Israel occupies Muslim land).
It is plain from Tietelbaum’s research that Ahamdinejad and the Shiite theocratic regime directing Iran do wish and plan for the destruction of Israel and that nuclear weapons are not excluded as part of their strategy.
It is nevertheless somewhat of a leap to assert Ahmadinejad’s speech of October 2006 to be a statement of direct intent or immediate assertion of a definite decision to commence nuclear bombardment as soon as possible or even that it would definitely occur as soon as Iran possessed a nuclear missile capacity. To do so requires divorcing Ahmadinejad’s words from the speech in which it is contained and instead attaching them to the wider context of remarks made across the regime.
I do agree that the possibility exists that Ahmadinejad, as a fervent Shiite, could indeed decide to launch a nuclear attack on Israel believing this would immediately precipitate the return of the Hidden Imam, even if Iran itself should be destroyed in retaliation.
However, the content of Ahmadinejad’s speech was tied to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the imperative for Palestinians to continue in their struggle and the eventual collapse of seemingly dominant regimes. It was not a drum beat to war or a statement of intent to invade, despite the propaganda machine of the Western powers declaring it so.
In short, I interperet the invocation of Khomeini’s dictum by Ahmadinejad as a ritual courtesy to Khomeini, not a call to Iranian arms, though it was indeed a call to Palestinian arms or continuing resistance along the lines of ‘Keep it up, boys’. I am also making allowances for Middle Eastern oratorial flourish, i.e. belligerent polemic or simply talking tough, which Muslims and those of Middle eastern cultures love to do.
Finally in this, I note that Titlebaum’s document records reverence for Khomeini’s words, not Ahamdinejad’s, and this is only logical. The military parades with ‘wipe Israel from the pages of history’ written on missiles occurred in 2003, two years before Ahmadinejad’s speech.
Postscript: Hitchens, Ahmadinejad and Khomeini
While researching this post I can across an article by Christopher Hitchens, whose writing I have frequently admired, which gave a seemingly good case for a hawkish view of Ahmadinejad’s words.
Christopher Hitchens in Slate puts MA’s words in the context of a particular utterance by the infamous Ayatollah Khomeini, traced to a compilation put out by the Institute for Imam Khomeini, located in Iran. Those words were:
Esrail ghiyam-e mossalahaane bar zed-e mamaalek-e eslami nemoodeh ast va bar doval va mamaalek-eeslami ghal-o-gham aan lazem ast…. Here is the translation: Israel has declared armed struggle against Islamic countries and its destruction is a must for all governments and nations of Islam.
Unfortunately for Hitchens, the quote of Khomeini that Ahmedinejad was quoting was not the one cited by Hitchens.
Professor Julian Cole traced Khomeini’s words to a 1980s speech in which he said in Persian “Een rezhim-i eshghalgar-i Quds bayad az sahneh-i ruzgar mahv shaved.” This means, “This occupation regime over Jerusalem must vanish from the arena of time.”