Sunday, July 30, 2006

What Ahmadinejad meant

In October 2005 the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gave a speech in which he called for Israel to be "wiped off the map"--quoting a well-known declaration by the Ayatollah Khomeini. In the same speech, according to the Al Jazeera translation, Ahmadinejad explained that Israel's "annihilation" is a necessary part of the "historic war" between Islam and the West.

In fact, all this has been the official policy of the Iranian Islamic Republic since it was established after the 1979 revolution. But in recent years, during the period when the elective part of the Iranian government was formally (though impotently) controlled by reformers led by President Khatami, this position had not been declared in such straightforward and aggressive terms, at least in forums where it would be picked up by the international press. With the resurgence of the hard-liners and the collapse of the reformist camp, that situation has apparently changed.

The phrase "wiped off the map," or something close to it, was the translation used by almost all international news reports to capture the relevant statement by Ahmadinejad. However, Juan Cole argued at the time that this translation was tendentious and misleading, and that in the original Farsi the meaning of this formulation--both as enunciated by the Ayatollah Khomeini and as quoted by Ahmadinejad--was actually fairly passive and un-threatening, "almost metaphysical". Some of us could not help thinking that Cole's interpretation amounted to a strained and unconvincing attempt to whitewash the very clear message intended by Ahmadinejad and understood by his audience (e.g., see here and here). As I remarked at the time:
I might even be willing to concede, in principle, that some of the reactions to Ahmadinejad's statements about the necessity for Israel's long-term elimination may have been too alarmist. I realize that Cole's aim is to try to lower the emotional temperature, and that's not entirely a bad thing. But it seems to me that (at the very least) he has gone overboard in the opposite direction. OK, it's hard to get the tone precisely right in such matters. But there's a point at which this kind of argument crosses the line into wishful thinking and disinformation.
Well, here is another piece of evidence. Below is a poster currently on display in Tehran with an English translation of Khomeini's injunction: "Israel must be wiped out [of] the world" (quoting the "Leader of Martyrdom Seekers Imam Khomeini"). Since it makes sense to presume that this translation reflects the official view of the Iranian regime, I find this interpretation more convincing than Juan Cole's

--Jeff Weintraub

"A billboard of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, dominates a Tehran street." (New York Times - July 30, 2006)