Tuesday, September 05, 2006

What Ahmadinejad means (once again)

The vague impression is still floating around some circles that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has not really called for Israel's destruction, and that reports to this effect were based on mistranslations and/or misunderstandings of his statements, which were actually quite harmless and inoffensive. This is actually pretty silly, when it is not disingenuous.

[See, e.g., Israel should be wiped off map, says Iran's President (Guardian) and Ahmadinejad: Israel's "annihilation" is a necessary part of the "historic war" between Islam & the West (Al Jazeera).]

One of the reasons that the intent of Ahmadinejad's statements was fairly obvious is that the viewpoint he expressed on the need for Israel's elimination has been the official position of the Iranian regime going back to the Ayatollah Khomeini (whom Ahmadinejad was, in part, quoting directly). As I noted back in October 2005, in response to the first flurry of headlines:
In fact, 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 in forums where it would be picked up by the international press. Of course, it continued to be emphasized, for internal Iranian consumption, by the non-elective part of the government, headed by Ayatollah Khamenei, which controls all the actual levers of power. Now that the Khatami phase of moderate Islamic reformism has been definitively shut down by the hard-liners, both parts of the Iranian government are speaking with the same voice. This has come as a shock to some in the outside world.
I'm afraid that Juan Cole played a significant role in muddying the waters by obfuscating the (fairly straightforward) meaning of Ahmadinejad's remarks. To some extent, these efforts by Cole to sanitize and whitewash Ahmadinejad's position were no doubt well-intended. Cole wanted to lower the emotional temperature, and sometimes that's not entirely a bad thing. But in this case he clearly went overboard in the opposite direction. Matters of interpretation can indeed be tricky and subtle sometimes, but there is a point at which the kinds of arguments Cole made cross the line into wishful thinking and disinformation ... and in a notorious public controversy with Christopher Hitchens on these issues, Cole also went off the deep end a bit.

[For some relevant background, see Juan Cole's Iran distortions (Christopher Hitchens), P.S. re Cole, Hitchens, & Ahmadinejad, and What Ahmadinejad meant.]

All this was clear enough even if one started from the literal English translations of the Persian (i.e., Farsi) statements by Ahmadinejad and Khomeini that were accepted by the different (serious) participants in the dispute. Obviously, as someone who knows no Farsi at all, I am in no position to judge Farsi-to-English translations. But plenty of other Farsi-speakers have rendered these statements by Ahmadinejad and Khomeini in ways that are a lot less strained, implausible, and euphemistic than Cole's version--and, incidentally, this includes the Iranian regime itself (see here, for example).

Furthermore, in various subsequent pronouncements Ahmadinejad has restated and clarified his position in ways that leave no doubt about what he has in mind [e.g., Ahmadinejad - Israel's destruction is the solution (AP)].

=> Nevertheless, as I indicated earlier, some people still have the second- or third-hand impression that the meaning of Ahmadinejad's statements is uncertain, and that his position, which is actually un-threatening and inoffensive, has been misconstrued (or is being deliberately twisted and sensationalized by war-mongering propagandists). Once these myths start floating around and become pervasive, reminding people that they're incorrect is a Sisyphean process.

=> Here is a recent intervention in this apparently never-ending process by someone who, unlike me, is fluent in Farsi and a certified academic scholar of Arabic & Islamic Studies (with a Ph.D. in Persian Studies), Denis MacEoin.

The following are some selections from a letter that MacEoin sent to the Reader's Editor of the Guardian, Ian Mayles, whose "normal function," as MacEoin puts it, "is to adjudicate on and publish corrections of everything from significant typos to statements of fact." I reproduce these selections with Dr. MacEoin's permission.
One two occasions in just over a month, I have found it necessary to write letters to the editor correcting statements by other readers, where the latter have 'corrected', first a letter of mine, and, yesterday, Tom Carew, a regular correspondent of mine. On neither occasion has my letter been used for publication. [....] Now, here's the rub (as I see it). Each of the correspondents whose letters [allegedly] contained 'corrections' did—demonstrably—contain false statements. [....]


Tom Carew (Letters, September 1) says that Iran has threatened "to wipe Israel off the map". As already stated by scholars of Farsi in the US and elsewhere, President Ahmadinejad, in his oft-quoted speech, made no such threat. He said the regime occupying Jerusalem should vanish, as had the shah's regime, Saddam Hussein's regime and the USSR, all three of which once seemed invincible. Nowhere did he call for the elimination of Israel. Nowhere do "wipe off" or "map" appear.

Annie McStravick


Annie McStravick (Letters, 4 September) would have us believe that 'Nowhere did he [President Ahmadinejad] call for the elimination of Israel', basing her claim on statements of unnamed 'scholars of Farsi'. As a scholar of Farsi myself, I have to say that she is talking through her hat. In the speech he gave at the Iranian Interior Ministry on 26 October 2005, Mr Ahmadinejad stated, citing the Imam Khomeini, that 'it is necessary for the Islamic states and countries to exterminate it [Israel]'. The term I have translated here as 'exterminate' is qal' o qam' kardan, a common expression with a standard dictionary definition of 'eradicate, extirpate, exterminate'. It would also help if Ms McStarvick had actually bothered to read the endless newspaper articles, political speeches, sermons, and other literature where genocide of the Jews of Israel is openly called for. Regime change is not and never has been an option for Israel's enemies.

[JW: That is, when spokesmen for the Iranian regime speak of the need to eliminate "the Zionist regime" or "the regime occupying Jerusalem," what this means is to eliminate Israel. The real point of these formulations is that they are not willing even to say the word "Israel," in the same way that, for decades, no one in the Arab world ever talked about "Israel," but instead about "the Zionist entity". Every informed person knows this--and, incidentally, Juan Cole has acknowledged it. This is not controversial.]

Yours sincerely,
Dr. Denis MacEoin [....]
As the old comic book character Mama Katzenjammer used to say, "Enough is too much!" Let's just face reality, shall we?

--Jeff Weintraub

[Update 9/6/2006: The Guardian has published a condensed version of this part of Denis MacEoin's letter:
Annie McStravick (Letters, September 4) says nowhere did President Ahmadinejad call for "the elimination of Israel" citing "scholars of Farsi". I am a scholar of Farsi. In his October 26 2005 speech he used the term "qal' o qam’ kardan", a common expression with a standard dictionary definition of "eradicate, extirpate, exterminate".
Dr Denis MacEoin
Newcastle upon Tyne ]