Jun
01
2012

Lost in Translation

Iran never threatened to wipe Israel off the map

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Daniella Zalcman

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Daniella Zalcman

The menacing threat has been repeated endlessly in U.S. corporate media in recent years: Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.” “Iran,” “Israel” and “wipe” in one form or another occur together in more than 17,000 articles in the Nexis news database over the last seven years. It plays a critical role in the case for pre-emptive war against Iran. There’s just one problem: It never happened.

Mideast expert and blogger Juan Cole (Informed Comment, 5/3/06) noted long ago that Iranian leaders never called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” but a recent admission by an Israeli official to that effect suggests that there is hope this information might finally penetrate the corporate media bubble.

On Al Jazeera English (4/14/12), Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor agreed with interviewer Teymoor Nabili’s suggestion that the supposed remarks were never actually made. Iranian leaders, Meridor said,

come basically ideologically, religiously, with the statement that Israel is an unnatural creature, it will not survive. They didn’t say “we’ll wipe it out,” you are right, but [that] it will not survive, it is a cancerous tumor, it should be removed.

The Persian phrase Meridor was asked about was used by Ahmadinejad in a 2005 speech in which neither maps nor wiping were mentioned. As Cole explained (Informed Comment, 5/3/06):

The actual quote, which comes from an old speech of Khomeini, does not imply military action, or killing anyone at all.... The phrase is almost metaphysical. He quoted Khomeini that “the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of time.” It is in fact probably a reference to some phrase in a medieval Persian poem. It is not about tanks.

Even the right-wing pro-Israel translation service MEMRI translated the Ahmadine-jad comment as “this regime that is occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time” (CounterPunch, 8/28/06).

The “cancerous tumor” reference is to remarks made about the Israeli state by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini in a public forum in 2000, in which Khameini also suggested an alternative to the present Israeli government (CNN .com, 12/15/00): “Palestinian refugees should return and Muslims, Christians and Jews could choose a government for themselves, excluding immigrant Jews.”

Hostile words, to be sure, but a far cry from the nuclear annihilation suggested by “wiping Israel off the map.”

The fact that the U.S. and Israel have repeatedly threatened Iran with attack, and suggested that they might even use nuclear weapons, is an irony lost on media that seem to take their cues from Orwell’s 1984.

A New York Times blog (Lede, 4/18/12) wrote up the Al Jazeera interview (“Israeli Minister Agrees Ahmadinejad Never Said Israel ‘Must Be Wiped Off the Map’”). Though the Lede’s lede was somewhat grudging, suggesting Iran’s language was partly to blame for the confusion (“Persian rhetoric is not always easy for English-speakers to interpret”), it nevertheless indicated a break from earlier media insistence that the threatening remarks, coupled with a supposed Iranian nuclear weapons program, posed an existential threat to Israel. “There is general agreement now among translators and scholars that Mr. Ahmadinejad did not commit his country to the project of destroying the state of Israel in that 2005 speech,” the Times acknowledged.

The Times has used the shopworn Ahmadinejad canard on several occasions. “Wipe Israel ‘Off the Map,’ Iranian Says,” was the paper’s October 27, 2005 headline; a January 19, 2010 report stated matter-of-factly: “The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, says Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. He has also denied the Holocaust and called for Israel to be wiped off the map.”

Other Times stories (e.g., 1/8/11) have acknowledged doubts about the claim, but the paper has never conclusively established the context and meaning of the remarks, despite the fact that Jonathan Steele, an Iranian expert who writes for the London Guardian, tried to explain it to Times reporter Ethan Bronner (6/11/06):

The Iranian president was quoting an ancient statement by Iran’s first Islamist leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, that “this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time,” just as the Shah’s regime in Iran had vanished. He was not making a military threat. He was calling for an end to the occupation of Jerusalem at some point in the future. The “page of time” phrase suggests he did not expect it to happen soon.

 

Other media outlets have expressed even less doubt that Iran is hell-bent for Israel’s annihilation. “Iran’s president unleashes another warning to Israel, declaring once again that the Jewish state will be wiped off the map, and soon,” remarked CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer (Situation Room, 6/2/08). A recent Washington Post op-ed (4/1/12) by Dennis Ross and David Makovsky asserted, “Israel is the only country that Iran has repeatedly threatened to wipe off the map.” “Since Ahmadinejad took office four years ago,” announced CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric (9/23/09), “he’s built a reputation as a provocateur, saying Israel should be wiped off the map.”

CBS Sunday Morning (4/8/12) provided a platform for actor and pundit Ben Stein to make a case for war against Iran based in part on the nonexistent threat:

Now, Israel is threatened with another Holocaust as Iran races towards building a nuclear bomb and missiles to deliver it to Israel. The mullahs and other men who rule Iran have explicitly promised to wipe Israel off the map. Israel is a tiny country, and one nuclear bomb detonated over Tel Aviv would indeed make another Holocaust.

Stein squarely hit two key claims that have sustained hostility toward Iran in official circles and corporate media alike: that Iran is attempting to manufacture nuclear weapons, and that it wants to wipe Israel off the map.

The first claim, though now contradicted by American officials and the CIA, who say there’s no proof Iran is currently working on nuclear weapons, nevertheless survives in the media as an apparently unkillable zombie lie (Extra!, 1/12). That doesn’t bode well for the dispelling of the second.